Sunday, May 7, 2017

Kiss of the Spider Woman

I've been on a real reading binge lately, and one of the objects of my drive has been Manuel Puig's The Kiss of the Spider Woman.  I have seen the film a number of times and like it very much, so I took advantage of a recent trip to the Southern Cone countries to finally read the book. 

I was very much impressed at the experimental style employed in the book.  Most of the text consists in dialogue between the two protagonists, Valentin the Marxist militant, and Molina, a seemingly gay man fascinated by classic Hollywood films.  This format is occasionally interrupted by chapters consisting in more formal dialogues between Molina and the prison director, official reports from the prison director to his higher-ups in the Argentine military junta, and some stream-of-consciousness internal thoughts that intersperse themselves within the dialogue chapters between Molina and Valentin.  Most distinctive, experimental, and to be honest jarring, are the copious footnotes that begin to pop up during the dialogue passages.  These footnotes are a pseudo-academic study of homosexuality, also getting into (and mixing sexual preference with) gender identity, gender expressions of masculine vs. feminine, etc.  They include lots of real references to psychologists and Marxist authors, but then they also include some made-up scholars.

What was most jarring to me about these footnotes (aside from their interruption of the narrative thread) is that they start out with an antiquated explanation of homosexuality, which mixes sexual orientation, normative statements implying the inherent inferiority or abnormality of homosexuality, and pathological descriptions of homosexuality.  But little by little the footnotes explicitly discredit most of these arguments of "why" homosexuality exists, and implicitly show the entire conceptual framework of these thinkers to be flawed and even absurd.  This surprised me in a book from 1976, that essentially it was advocating for a movement beyond "explaining" or diagnosing homosexuality, to just accepting that there is a broad range of sexual and gender identities and expressions among different people.  This was way ahead of its time. 

One aspect of the discussion of homosexuality that is more a sign of its own time is the author's Marxian analysis of the links between machismo, heteronormativity (though he doesn't call it that), and larger trends of social and economic oppression.  These may not speak as much to many contemporary readers in our declassed, depoliticized age, and may even offend those who would advocate for gay rights within the prevailing bourgeois framework of society.  But they were also interesting. 

I was amazed at how advanced and unique and progressive Puig's treatment of sexual orientation was, until just now when I read a wikipedia article on him in preparation for writing this blog post.  I guess I am the only person who didn't know already that Puig himself was gay, and furthermore it appears that he was a member/founder of a radical Marxist group called the Gay Liberation Front.  So now it seems that Puig was in fact present in both characters, both Valentin and Molina, and surely the dialogues and debates between them were things the author himself had devoted much thought to.

Here's a much more expert analysis of the work than my own.

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