Saturday, March 19, 2011

An imaginary frontispiece, with the artist in furs.
I was struck when I read the Globe preview for "The Elegant Enigmas of Edward Gorey" (at the Boston Athenæum through June 4) that somehow the author got through the piece without ever mentioning his subject's sexuality (even though its subtitle at one point was "Figuring Out Why Edward Gorey Liked What He Liked" - you can still see this in the link). Other previews and articles I came upon followed the same M.O. - as if the press had agreed upon a certain story and was sticking to it. It seemed Gorey wasn't necessarily gay, even though he was a life-long bachelor who dressed in necklaces and furs; he was just asexual, a lovable eunuch who spent his spare time petting his cats down on the Cape when he wasn't drawing his funny little books.

So I wasn't too surprised when at the exhibit itself, I found little mention of the artist's sexuality. The biography on hand from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust doesn't mention it at all, even though its four pages included references to Harvard, Chicago's Art Institute, the Poet's Theatre (where Gorey hung out with Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery . . . hmmmm), the New York City Ballet, and just about everything else prestigious that Gorey ever had a connection to.  So on the one hand - his pedigree, his connections, his place in the establishment firmament - the exhibit offers copious information about Mr. Gorey; but on the other hand, about his personal life it offers absolutely nothing.

Now I never knew the talented Mr. Gorey (who passed away in 2000).  So I don't "know" if he was gay or not. But I do know his artwork was obviously coded as queer.  In fact, it's gayer than a lavender three-dollar bill.  Just check out the cover he designed for Melville's Redburn in 1957,  at left; the novel is subtitled "His First Voyage" (!), and Gorey's design is hilariously deadpan; all it lacks is a word balloon with "Yoo hoo, Sailor!" to make its subtext clear: the buttoned-up Redburn's hands frame his pubes as he gazes at the open crotch of a swarthy sailor (while his twin offers up his bum).  At the same time, though, there's a real sense of alienation and melancholy at work in the image - and appropriately enough, as Redburn is the story of a virginal young man thrown into a brutal male milieu.

Many take Redburn as veiled autobiography; and of course these days, Melville is more and more generally believed to have been gay (I'm one of those believers, I admit).  So the Gorey cover is perhaps doubly, or even triply, poignant.  And at least it's in the Athenæum show.  To be fair, there are a few other images where the gay coding is so explicit  you'd only miss it if you were blind; in one from The West Wing, for instance, a Victorian gentleman warmed by his fur (like Gorey himself) stares furtively at the tush of a male statue just before meeting his doom - and in it, we sense the darkly comic chuckle that Gorey became famous for.  But a similar image from Wing that's not in the show is far more moving, if less marketable; in it (below right), we see Gorey's bearded factotum stripped of his fur (and facing a void) on that cold, lonely parapet.  And tellingly, this time he has his hands covering his own bum.

Alone in the deadly West Wing.
Such an image, it goes without saying, could be troubling to gays and straights alike. To straights, it means pondering the artist's identity not as some emasculated entertainer but as an actual sexual outsider, expertly manipulating their responses; to gays, it means facing the author's estrangement from that identity, and his horror of it. And isn't being gay supposed to be wonderful now? Well, when you look over the oeuvre of Edward Gorey, you get the distinct impression that he didn't think so. Which makes him a tricky subject for gay critics. For can you have a gay cultural hero who was alienated from gay sex?

Thus, perhaps, the vogue for pushing Gorey into what I call "the glass closet," that strange cultural zone - rather like one of Gorey's own limbos - where cultural figures simultaneously operate as both gay and straight.  In the high end of the closet, Peter Sellars jostles James Levine; in the low end, Michael Jackson elbows Calvin Klein and Danny Kaye. Indeed, sometimes even when an artist explicitly states that he or she is gay - this used to happen fairly often with pop stars - they're patted back into the closet anyway, because it allows opposed aspects of the culture to exploit their output at will, without any thought as to its true nature.

Of course Gorey kept perfectly mum about his true nature to the press; he only spoke about it in his art. And in a way, to be honest, the glass closet was appropriate to his artistic persona, which was itself neither here nor there, but locked in a kind of alienated stasis. And as his  books and designs became more popular with the mass audience, Gorey probably found the glass closet a commercially convenient place to reside as well.

But should critics honor its crystalline walls? Somehow I don't think so. It would be strange, for instance, to never mention that El Greco was Catholic - and thus, to my mind, it's also equally strange to not wonder whether or not he might have been gay.  We'd look down at a Jewish performer who concealed his or her religion, and we'd never tolerate a black performer who worked in whiteface. Why is the glass closet so different? I suppose because many people still live with the burden of internalized homophobia. But Edward Gorey has long passed on, and even if you wanted to honor the wishes of a closeted performer by never discussing his or her true identity, surely that wish becomes a bit absurd once they're dead.

Of course there are also commercial considerations in play - which, yes, still operate at non-profits like the Boston Athenæum, which has leaned heavily on Gorey's commercial work (albeit in its original form) for this exhibit. That work is now largely perceived as a postmodern variant on Victorian "nonsense" (and accurately enough, I think), and you sense that the press coverage of the "Enigmas" show (was there a single enigma in it?) was designed to make the exhibit "safe" for children.  (Indeed, the Globe later featured an article in which a staff member took her kids to it; meanwhile the paper's critic, Sebastian Smee, recommended that we "laugh and laugh" at Gorey's silly, "asexual" images.)

But this only begs a larger question - why do we keep Victorian nonsense in its own kind of closet? For it, too, was populated by sexual outsiders.  Lewis Carroll was obsessed with girls, and J. M. Barrie was obsessed with boys, but that doesn't really change the artistic status of the sublime Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Peter Pan.  Indeed, it's hard not to miss a certain parallel between the Victorians and Gorey's supposed sexlessness: it's pretty clear that Carroll and Barrie never acted on whatever impulses or drives they may have harbored - and neither, it seems, did Gorey.  He's their gay soul-mate, who poignantly enough never acted on his true nature.  Actually, perhaps Gorey's celibacy, his sexual stasis, is more poignant than theirs (if less heroic); for they refrained from actual crimes, while Gorey . . .

Well, this is where things get really interesting. Like Carroll and Barrie, Gorey is obsessed with children - but hardly as idealized sex objects. No, Edward Gorey doesn't want to molest children, he wants to kill them - in drawings that fill the "Enigmas" show - although his sketches evince a strange near-sympathy that renders these many murders free of any sense of personal sadism.  No, it's the cruelty of the world that Gorey invokes so repetitively, as an emotional rather than sexual fetish; and as he's obsessed with the demise of both boys and girls, it slowly becomes clear that his true theme is the death of innocence in general (and it's hard not to equate this "death" with a similar childish "death" - the onset of sexual experience).

What perhaps made his name - and fortune - is that Gorey renders the end of childhood with an owlish bemusement that provides a reliable comic distance from the deadly events in question (comedy depends on some sort of distance, and "distance" is essentially what Gorey is all about). In The Gashlycrumb Tinies (at right, perhaps his signature work), Neville may be lucky enough to die of ennui, but the rest of the "tinies" meet more, well, ghastly fates, in alphabetical order: Kate is struck with an axe, for instance, while Xerxes is devoured by mice.  But Gorey's pristine imagery is always frozen just before or after these horrors, and that po-faced gap renders the unseen atrocity absurd (as it has in the violent comedy of so many popular cartoons and movies).

This is what turns Gorey's illustrations into a form of high camp - that slight step back from the brink also operates as a mode of ironic control. And that control never falters - all of Gorey's illustrations are relentlessly rigid, as paralyzed as he was; even when a figure is caught mid-leap, it seems to be hanging in mid-air, unable to move - which synchs up nicely with the palindromic, illogical nature of his clever limericks, and of "nonsense" in general.  That ironic grip is also what allows his art to be re-purposed by heterosexuals into a tonic for the pressures of wholesomeness; like Sebastian Smee, they can "laugh and laugh" at the images of kids headed toward disaster as a form of self-aware, but innocent, venting.

Still, I think for Gorey the death of children meant something quite different, just as I think it's wrong to try to emasculate his gayness, or deny his alienation from it.  Both aspects of his personality enrich his art - which of course makes it less marketable but more moving.  It's harder to "laugh and laugh" at some of his lesser-known but more personal works, for instance, like the drawing below (which is not in the Athenæum show).  There's still a certain black comedy at work here, but the image isn't camp, because there's also a greater sense of personal horror.  It's difficult to chuckle knowingly at this strange creature (with human eyes) gasping helplessly for air, and unable to escape its comfortable sofa, just as it's hard not to laugh at the grim ends of Kate and Neville. The Athenæum is supposed to be a place of scholarship - or so I thought. Yet it's happy to present only one side of this artist's emotional coin: an Edward Gorey largely reduced to the genesis of his calendars and bestsellers. This, of course, nicely transforms the atmospheric corridors of the Athenæum into a kind of Addams-Family artistic theme park. But I think real scholarship would have unearthed a portrait of the artist a bit more like the image below.

Not so funny: an Edward Gorey self-portrait?


  1. Fascinating piece that shows that there maybe greater depth to Gorey than the macabre deadpan we generally attribute to him (I certainly had noticed that some of his works were coded gay, but I never gave much thought to it) however, I'm not so sure about the comparison to Lewis Carroll.

    I'm not an authority on this matter, but based on conversations with Carroll enthusiasts, the popular narrative regarding Carroll's photography, that it represents a sexual fetish for prepubescent girls, seems to be the result of the rediscovery of his work in the 1960s when Freudianism had pretty much become ubiquitous in the humanities. Children were a popular subject for photography at the time, and from what I have read, there are only six child nudes known to exist (of course, 60% of his portfolio is missing.)

    Interesting note: Alice Liddell continued to work as a model well into her adulthood.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Ian. Regarding Carroll - I don't want to stoke any feelings of hysteria against him, and I don't think he ever actually molested a young girl. And I'm aware that many Carroll scholars contest the idea that he had pedophilic leanings. But that doesn't quite wash with me, for several reasons. First - yes, only six images of naked girls survive from his portfolios; but it seems likely he took many more. And it is unclear whether the rest of his photographs were "lost" or destroyed - just as it is unclear why there are many pages ripped out of his diaries. Then there's the question of Alice Liddell's father abruptly withdrawing the family from Carroll's orbit (various explanations have been offered for this). And while nude photos of children were deemed acceptable in the Victorian era, Carroll was unusual in that he maintained close, secretive relationships with the girls he photographed. Finally, there are the surviving images themselves (you can find a few online), which are far from innocent; they're not "pornographic" by our standards, but they're definitely erotic, and rather weird. I think I stand by my parallel.

  3. The notion that Carroll was sexually obsessed with prepubescent girls was certainly the conventional wisdom when I was in school. I've just understood that the notion has become contested in recent years by people who are more knowledgeable in terms of both Carrollinia and Victoriania (and the Pre-Raphaelite ideology) than I am. The stuff is definitely weird from my perspective; It's just that given the debates going on, it's hard for me to determine if it's weird because Carroll was weird or it's weird because upper-class Oxbridge Victorians were weird (I don't have a stake in that discussion.)

  4. Thank you Mr. Garvey, for your thoughtful essay. I had read the mainstream reviews of this artist that I enjoyed so much in my younger years, and been left feeling shortchanged by the lack of certain meaningful details. It is too easy to feel this void of information, and then just move on without questioning it too much. Thank you for insisting on a more thorough critique. Your words and thoughts convey a more fitting tribute to his memory. Thanks too for including the last image especially. Remarkable!