Existential Choice and Queer Resentment

In his On the Geneology of Morals, Frederich Nietzsche describes the origin of moral norms of the dispossessed in revolt – the infamous slave morality. On this topic he writes:

It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, “These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—should he not be good?” then there is nothing to carp with in this ideal’s establishment, though the birds of prey may regard it a little mockingly, and maybe say to themselves, “We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.”

The essence of Nietzsche’s vision of resentiment is that the socially inferior develop their sense of moral norms and identity in opposition to the ‘master morality’. In this sense, the master defines the slave.

Could there be a more apt description of queer politics in the 21st century?

Despite tremendous successes against the policing of our sexuality, many gay men and women still define themselves in opposition to heterosexual norms in society. So many gay identities are defined by their outrage, their victimhood and their sense of marginalisation.

Whether it is faux surprise about religious beliefs, silly internet tirades against toleration or anger about representation in genre flicks. What’s missing from this outrage is any creative vision about how the world should be. What culture best serves ‘us’? What virtues should ‘we’ aspire to?

I’m reluctant to use plural pronouns because the very notion of a “queer community” was a strategic myth designed to fuel shared political norms. Yet if I could play to the myth a little bit, I think there is something to be learned from gay figures from the past, in particular there is what one call a certain queer sensibility that’s a worthy answer to the question: ‘how should one live?’

In Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, we get a good glimpse of this sensibility – one that asserts uncomfortable truths and learns to flourish despite harsh realities:

One must be absolutely modern.

Never mind hymns of thanksgiving: hold on to a step once taken. A hard night! Dried blood smokes on my face, and nothing lies behind me but that repulsive little tree!… The battle for the soul is as brutal as the battles of men; but the sight of justice is the pleasure of God alone.

Yet this is the watch by night. Let us all accept new strength, and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with glowing patience, we will enter the cities of glory.

Why did I talk about a friendly hand! My great advantage is that I can laugh at old love affairs full of falsehood, and stamp with shame such deceitful couples, – I went through women’s Hell over there; – and I will be able now to possess the truth within one body and one soul.

This spirit of revolt in the face of a cold, cruel world is also famously captured in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

Continuing with the Beats, we also see this in William Burrough’s Queer:

A curse. Been in our family for generations. The Lees have always been perverts. I shall never forget the unspeakable horror that froze the lymph in my glands–the lymph glands that is, of course–when the baneful word seared my reeling brain: I was a homosexual. I thought of the painted, simpering female impersonators I’d seen in a Baltimore nightclub. Could it be possible I was one of those subhuman things? I walked the streets in a daze like a man with a light concussion–just a minute, Doctor Kildare, this isn’t your script. I might well destroyed myself, ending an existence which seemed to offer nothing but grotesque misery and humiliation. Nobler, I thought, to die a man than live on, a sex monster. It was a wise old queen–Bobo, we called her–who taught me that I had a duty to live and bear my burden proudly for all to see, to conquer prejudice and ignorance and hate with knowledge and sincerity and love.

Now I’m not trying to romanticise misery here. There should be a continued push for full sexual and gender liberation. However, what queer writers of the past managed to do – and what my generation fails to do– is avoid falling into what Jean-Paul Sartre would call ‘acting in bad faith’. That is, many gay people fail to assert themselves into the world, choosing instead to stand in solidarity with an identity defined in opposition to others.

This is a very diminished way of existing. Indeed, the proliferation of think-pieces worrying about why gay men are so unhappy, would be better off avoiding the musings about drugs and Grindr, and instead ask more existential questions about how do gay men see themselves?

There is always a choice in how to live, even in a society that is revolted by your very existence. One can either live as defined by the people you despise, or think creatively and individually about how best to survive an imperfect world.

Nietzsche put it simply: one repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.


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