Quentin Crisp + Reinaldo Arenas = the new old Queerion?April 12, 2007
Both Reinaldo Arenas and Quentin Crisp were queer writers in the Twentieth Century who wrote extensively about cultural repression and persecution of gays in their writing. In this essay I will explore how each writer came from disparate backgrounds and experiences, yet both writers shared a common experience that in part defined their lives and writing. Both writers extensively explored their sexuality and identity to produce a rich body of work that helped to define gay experience in the Twentieth Century. Although both writers shared similar ideas about sexuality and its relationship to the larger society, their stories manifest in different ways based on their temperaments and conditions to which they were subjected. Both writers fled existences they considered limited or stifling as youth. Both writers sought to exert their identities as young adults through grand gestures and desperate living. Both faced suppression by the law and imprisonment for who they were, but each writer’s story was uniquely their own. In Arenas’ Before Night Falls and Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant, each writer documents their life stories and ideas of sexuality against a backdrop of hardship and cultural tension. Arenas started life in rural Cuba, joined the Castro revolution, and finally fell victim to the government’s suppression. Crisp fled what he felt was an oppressively middle class existence to become a gender outlaw in London.
Crisp and Arenas both came from different backgrounds that they each eventually came to see as unbearable. Early on Crisp spent much of his life with his family and at boarding schools in rural England. It was an unpleasant experience that he spent a great deal of time and effort trying to distance himself from. Crisp describes most of the setting of his early life in mundane and uninspiring terms. He recollects: “My memory always looks toward the empty fields and the poplar trees standing along the mauve-gray paths that zigzagged slightly uphill toward Belmont and the school to which I went. The sky is sunless, the earth unpopulated; and to my waking eyes, this landscape is forever in a state of pause without the least hint of expectancy” (Crisp 8).
Arenas also recalled the site of his youth often in uninspiring terms, but interspersed with magical glimpses of color and depth. It is a place that he seeks to get away from as his way of life begins to come to an end under Castro, but that later he recalls is rosy terms. “It was Rural School 91 in Perronales County, where we lived, an area of sparsely populated plains and hills. A main road, not much more than a dirt esplanade, crossed the whole district and led to the town of Holguin, about four or five miles away” (9 Arenas).
Both writers wrote extensively about their individual sexual awakenings. I think this topic acutely accentuates the differences in attitude and temperament between the two writers. Crisp seemed to regard his sexuality as a burden or curse he must bear. One of his first sexual encounters took place at boarding school with another student from India. The encounter was a sort of hazing or rite of passage experience performed by the students at the school. His description of the encounter is joyless and devoid of passion. “The occasion could only be described as a success inasmuch as the object of the exercise was to do it and to be known to have done it. These ends were achieved. I did not expect any pleasure and there was none” (Crisp 14). He goes on to lament the nature of these activities and to delineate his alienation from this sort of sexual encounter. “I think I can say that effeminate homosexuals are among those who indulge least in sex acts with other boys at school. They seem to realize that these jolly get-togethers are really only a pooling of the carnal feelings of two people who deep down are interested in their dreams of girls. Otherwise they tend to be self congratulatory pyrotechnical displays of potency” (Crisp 15).
In stark contrast Arenas’ description of his sexual awakening is one of exuberance and passion. He states early on “I think I always had a huge sexual appetite” (Arenas 18). For him it almost represents a coming to life or a true awakening. At age six he stumbled across a group of about thirty young men bathing in the river as part of a festival. His response is impassioned and voracious. “To see all those naked bodies, all those exposed genitals, was a revelation to me: I realized, without a doubt, that I liked men. I enjoyed seeing them come out of the water, run among the trees, climb the rocks, and jump. I loved to see their bodies dripping wet, their penises shining” (Arenas 8).
Both writers rebelled against their life as adolescents and sought to distance themselves from their past while defining new identities for themselves. Crisp saw himself becoming trapped in a life that he saw as utter mediocrity. At this point he describes himself as, “… invincibly middle class or worse (my mother had a faint cockney accent)” (Crisp 36). Always an effeminate child Crisp began to rebel against his undesired middle class background by adopting an outlandishly effeminate persona. He wrote: “Exhibitionism is like a drug. Hooked in adolescence, I was now taking doses so massive that it would have killed a novice. Blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick, I paraded the dim streets of Pimlico with my overcoat wrapped around me as though it were a tailless ermine cape” (Crisp 28).
Arenas rebelled in different ways. Due to the hardships associated with the revolution and changing conditions in his social sphere, Arenas also sought to rebel and create a new life for himself. For Arenas this took the form of running away from his life and family to become a guerrilla rebel in the mountains for Castro’s Revolutionary Government. “Around 1958 conditions in Holguin were becoming more and more unbearable, with little food and no electricity. If life there had been boring, now it was simply impossible” (Arenas 40).
Each writer later spent time in prison. Crisp escaped entrapment for simply being gay in a neighborhood known for gay activity, but Arenas spent a desperate period locked away for being a dissident writer and gay. Both writers were later able to move to America and eventually to New York.
Both writers, at least initially, saw America as a solution to their difficulties. Although Crisp’s move to New York took place after the period documented in The Naked Civil Servant, his attitude can best be summed up with one of a number of references to America and its attitudes in the book.
American: Can I walk you home, ma’am?
Me: You think I’m a woman don’t you?
American: You waggle your fanny like a woman.
Me: Oh, I should ignore that.
American: I’m trying to, but it’s not easy.
Conversations such as this told me that I was by nature an American (Crisp 148).
For Arenas on the other hand, America was a symbol of his exile from the Cuba of his youth. Disillusioned with Miami, Arenas soon relocated to New York, which at first he embraced with the opportunities that were offered him. He wrote, “New York for me was a true celebration” (Arenas 297), but later he lamented: “New York has no tradition, no history; there can be no history where there are no memories to hold on to. The city is in constant flux, constant construction, constant tearing down and building up again; a supermarket yesterday is a produce store today, a movie house tomorrow, a bank the day after” (Arenas 310).
Both The Naked Civil Servant and Before Night Falls show writers voraciously concerned with living life on their terms. Although both writers shared similar formative experiences, each structured their narratives to be true to their personal voice and vision as a writer. Their level of engagement and individual perspective puts a unique face on their experience. Crisp wrote short nondescript prose about his disenfranchised youth, while Arenas focused on passionately engaged accounts of life under Castro’s Cuba. Crisp saved flowery expansive writing for things that most closely defined his character like dressing up, challenging gender roles, and the artifice of life. Arenas was most engaged when exploring sexuality, hardship of politics, and engagement with daily life. Although from disparate backgrounds and experiences, both writers share a common experience that in part defined their lives. Each writer’s temperament and perspective defined how they would live and create in the face of these hardships. Both faced suppression by the law and imprisonment for who they were, but each writer’s story helped define what it meant to be defiant, alive, and queer in the Twentieth Century.