Sunday, October 26, 2008

Queer Handel

“Was George Frederic Handel Gay?” asks Gary C. Thomas in one of the most influential and revealing essays on musicology and queer theory. The answer, at best, can only be inferred from primary sources since Handel never openly admitted that he was gay, and for an obvious historical reason too: the origin of the word “homosexual” (prior to its subsequent conflations with the word “gay”) dates back only to 1868 , more than 100 years after Handel died. Even so, the polarisation of “heterosexual/homosexual” did not come to signify a specific medical distinction until the 1890s, while its modern accretion of political values only crystallised during the first half of the 21st century . Quite simply, even when faced with inquiry, Handel could not have subscribed to a position or an identity that has come to signify under various contemporary social, cultural and political forces, since Handel’s own discursive fields of activity (i.e. activities that we might deem as homosexual today) would have lacked a unifying discourse, indeed a name.

Despite these historical incongruities in definition, Handel’s alleged queerness continued to egg musicologists, historians and biographers, who had the “duty to reveal the whole truth about the subject’s life with at least a modicum of dispassionate objectivity”. For these historians, the lack of clear-cut biographical data that signalled Handel’s deviance from the heterosexual norm came to signify not a subjective silence, but an epistemological silence. The final word on Handel’s sexuality was seen to be a lacuna in “the whole truth”, a niggling foreclosure that consequently recast Handel’s sexuality as a hotbed of academic contestations. For Biographers, Handel’s tendency to evade inquiries on women and sexuality seemed to fare poorly against the bulwark of empirical evidence that suggested Handel’s participation in sexually deviant activities.

A revealing manifestation of this historical deadlock finds form in Louis-Francois Roubiliac’s monumental sculpture of Handel, currently residing at the “Poet’s Corner” in Wesminster Abbey (see Fig. 1 below) . Perched atop a marbled pedestal, the composer is represented classically in scholarly gown, elbow balanced on a table bearing a copy of Handel’s most lauded Oratorio “The Messiah”. Despite these predictable elements, Roubiliac’s sculpture invites us to ponder upon more curious elements of his portrayal. For example, a large double-bass beneath the clutter of the table is partially obscured by a large foulard, held by Handel’s right hand. Noticing these details, the eye is drawn to another feature that mirror’s the curtain-like partial revelation of the bass – to the left, Handel’s own scholarly gown is garishly pulled to one side, granting the viewer a full gaze of Handel’s nether-regions. Of course, this is purely suggestive, as Handel is safely fully garbed beneath his robe; however, the viewer is left with as sense of curiosity as to what invisible force might be tugging (disrobing) the figure of Handel. With this peculiarity in mind, our previous interpretation of Handel’s ‘revealing’ of the double-bass is thrown into question: is Handel’s right hand engaged in an act of disclosure, or is it foreclosure?

I am not claiming any authoritative interpretation of Roubiliac’s sculpture; although Roubiliac was acquainted with Handel, as far as I am aware, there is no conclusive evidence that Roubiliac was a “social deviant” nor that he possessed intimate knowledge of Handel’s non-normative dealings. However, Roubiliac’s sculpture so charged with the obsessive gaze of the spectator offers us a reading into the epistemological nature of Handel’s interlocutors in their attempt to “disrobe” Handel. After all, one reading that Handel’s monument offers us is the mystery of the invisible hand that pries at Handel’s robe: aren’t these forces literally the enactments of Handel’s biographers (who mediate our received realities of Handel through their scholarly research and interpretations) on Handel, literally their desires to “unveil” or “disrobe” the truth ossified into stone for the eye of the public? Our desiring, disrobing gaze, it seems, is greeted with disappointment as Handel ‘hides’ the instrument from our reach that would allow us to solve the mystery once and for all; namely, the sweet instrumental melodies of a confessional.

Alternatively, Roubaliac’s sculpture so precisely ossifies the epistemological impasse of Handel scholarship into stone, and can be read as not a surface representation of Handel himself, but a sculptural manifestation of an epistemological structure (so ridden with the desire to disclose) that has replaced the actual subject of Handel himself. This epistemological impasse, Thomas brilliantly calls our attention to, is none other than what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the “Epistemology of the Closet”. In short, to borrow a phrase of Marshall McLuhan’s, “the medium is the message” when it comes to discussing matters of Handel’s sexuality – more specifically, the structuring of the question “Was Handel Gay?” is predicated on the heterosexual/homosexual binary that enables the question in the first place, such that any attempt to “answer” the question becomes an act of epistemological reification. For Thomson,

“The question of Handel’s homosexuality ... is constantly generated, not as a present surface of knowledge, but rather as an absent surfeit of it [in terms of silence]; a lack becomes an ‘excess’ – knowledge is produced in ‘excess’ of what is spoken ... [The] closet is that space where silences speak, obfuscations reveal, absences signify, and negations posit.” (My emphasis)

“Silence” as an epistemological phenomenon within the logic of the Closet is therefore not a mere lacuna. What Sedgwick and Thomas both acknowledge is the way in which “silences” are performative within a given social context, and can therefore be interpreted by various bodies. Thus, the interpretation of “silence” in Handel’s case is already a hermeneutic strategy with which to impose the logic of the Closet binary. Within this structural logic, “silence” is recast as an “open secret” (remember the old saying “silence is consent”?), condemning Handel’s slippery “queerness” to the legible legions of foreclosed knowledge. As D.A. Miller suggests, the “open secret” functions “not to conceal knowledge, as much as to conceal the knowledge of the knowledge.” Even as our politically-sated desiring eyes gaze upon Handel’s disrobing, it would be good to remember that the instrument which Handel’s queer silence fore/discloses is an instrument of our own making – the instrument of the Closet logic which enables and justifies Handel’s disrobing in the first place, the instrument upon which the representation of Handel which we consume seems to rest (sit) upon.

Even if we recognize our locatedness as spectators and participants in historical reconstruction, to what extent should we acknowledge Handel’s implicit queerness in biographies? For Thomas, biographic revision along the lines of a “gay” Handel risks essentializing (or re-centering) a historical version on Handel which “responds to the terms in which the struggles for gay liberation are being waged at this (our) moment in history.” Rather than permitting Handel to exist as “a site of dialectical tensions and relations in culture”, what Thomas cautions is the way in which a “gay” Handel may be structured, even celebrated, to reflect our own contemporary history of GLBT politics. Indeed, as Edward Said pointed out, the construction of text is essentially a political act; no text can be completely free our ‘outside’ the realm of cultural, social, economic and political networks it is engaged with, nor can it claim to opine upon the sphere of the contemporary discourses without ultimately participating in them.

Thus “silence”, when interpreted as a “closeted” silence risks shoehorning a queer Handel into a celebrated spokesperson for left-wing gay rights sloganists. Worse still, defending a silent Handel against the order of queerness would be to blatantly ignore glaring historical details, not to mention risk being blamed for acts of proscriptive canonicity that only permits the Western heterosexual male into its order. It is to this effect that Gary Thomas proposes what he calls a “(homo)textual Handel”, an internally diffracted historical subject that is not beholden to the 20th Century’s obsession with Closet binary logic. But even this definition runs into rocky terrain when it suggests that the (homo)textual Handel be read as “a whole field of social relations and discourses that participate in a complex and open-ended historical conversation” – is this not already the condition of all historical textuality? Thomas’ own definition sounds suspiciously close to anthropologist Michael Taussig’s “Colonial Mirror of Reproduction” condition in which colonizers project their intrinsic savagery onto the colonized “other” which is then physically and symbolically dominated. The subaltern cannot speak, nor can historical Handel, who happens to sit on many a ventriloquists’ lap.

However, there is a “third-way” to attend to silence (and not merely ignore it or treat it as an exclusion or an absence); that is, to conceive of silence not as a mode of consent, but as a strategy of resistance. In a creative exploration of music, McCarthy cold war politics and queer history, Jonathan Katz conceives John Cage’s “silence” on his sexuality a recurring compositional strategy to explore an ethics of listening. Analysing Cage’s infamous “Lecture on Nothing”, Katz opines:
“For Cage, then, communication, which is a form of expression, burdens the listener. It is an attempt to sway, to "impose" a discourse. In substituting "conversation" for "communication," Cage seeks to replace a desire for mastery or control with the open-ended free play of ideas. [...] Meaning in Cage, now replaced by a policy of non-interference, was freed from any dependence on such logos, for it was logos, after all, which had marked him, as a gay man, as disturbed, marginal and unworthy in the first place. Discriminations of meaning or value were, Cage argues here, inherently discriminatory.”

Silent resistance on the part of the composer also helped to shape an aesthetic of self-awareness both for John Cage (and his dealings with Zen philosophy) as well as his audience. Referring to Cage’s notorious 4’33’’, Katz points out that:

“Silent music inaugurated a process of reading that at least potentially moved the listener from an unselfconscious complicity with dominant forms of expression (forms wherein the expressive is passively registered as inherent in the music) towards a degree of self-consciousness about one’s role as a listener or maker of meaning.” (My emphasis)

Cage’s “queering” silences thus revealed the complicity of the listener in reifying predetermined or inherited norms of musical expression and expectation, as well as situating the music in meaning. Paradoxically, by revealing these same structures, Cage’s silent aesthetic simultaneously offers to re-empower the listener by returning agency to the listener as creative collaborator in the composition and master of self-meaning. And what better way to sidestep the problematic terrain of a (homo)textualized Handel than to start listening to Handel as resistive silence – in other words, let Handel remain eternally queer by remembering that it is ultimately Handel’s music that we have come to valorise beyond issues of sexuality and canonicity. By embracing an aesthetic (and ethic) of listening, Handel’s dissonant “locatedness” in contemporary culture becomes “silenced”, literally drowned out by the music itself. And perhaps by doing so, we become more aware of the harmonies that exist between Handel’s “disclosed” instruments, and our own instruments of entraining that, too, sometimes exist hidden beyond our knowledge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Handel's silence on his private life has led people to believe that he may have been gay. But do we gain any insight into his sexuality from his operas and oratorios? One thing that strikes one from his music is the especially touching arias sung by a father to a daughter. Could Handel have had a daughter in real life? To solve this problem one needs to go back to his time in Italy in the early 1700s. He was said to be a very handsome man and was rumoured to have had an affair with a famous Italian female singer. But his life appears to have changed when he went from Italy to Hanover, where he met Princess Caroline of Ansbach, the wife of the future King George II of England. It was written at the time that she was spending all her time with Handel and he wrote several love duets for her. One of these duets was later adapted to be the aria "For unto us a child is born" in Messiah. So, was Handel hinting here that they had had a child together? It is likely that the real reason Handel moved to England was to be with Princess Caroline, later Queen Caroline. It was likely that King George II would have agreed to this relationship as they had a friendly and open marriage with George having several mistressess. Caroline was deeply interested in the arts while George had no interest whatsoever in them. Handel's house in Brook Street gave ready access to Kensington Palace, where he could have lived with Caroline. It was noted at the time that he was absent from his home for long periods and nobody knew where he went. He was very fond of Caroline's daughter Princess Anne who was his favourite music pupil and who was probably his own daughter as well.