The introduction to Colm Tóibín’s new essay collection treats a poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s that remained unpublished during her lifetime:
" Just now, when I saw you naked again,
I thought the same words: rose-rock, rock-rose . . .
Rose, trying, working, to show itself,
Forming, folding over,
Unimaginable connections, unseen, shining edges.
Tóibín wants these lines to express " love in a dark time, " the unfree, restless passion of the homosexual of an earlier " intolerant age. " In his reading, they describe " a love that was ‘trying, working, to show itself’ and then holding back, fearing ‘the unimaginable connections’ between private desires and the public realm. "
But this interpretation misconstrues the poem’s intent. Bishop says nothing here about a desire to publicize; what she describes is sheltered within the intimacy of sexual love, and fear has nothing to do with it. Tóibín’s misreading — a keynote to his book — derives from a paradoxical agenda: " the discovery of a history and a heritage " by a reader who " moves subjectively among texts. " The detection of a wish to be here and queer in the privacies of an unpublished love poem is no mean feat of heritage ﬁnding. It’s the reader’s ﬁrst indication that Tóibín’s " history of progress " will rate the reader’s response to " texts " more highly than, well, the truth.
Although Tóibín is best known outside Ireland as a novelist (The Blackwater Lightship was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize), Love in a Dark Time is his fourth non-ﬁction work. It approaches its subjects convinced that whatever their public face, in private, " in their own spirit, " their lives and their work were about " the struggle for a gay sensibility. " The book’s heroes are ﬁgures who sought " to tell the truth . . . to reveal the explicit drama of being themselves, " from Irish nationalist martyr Roger Casement and novelist James Baldwin to poet Thom Gunn and ﬁlm director Pedro Almodóvar.
Casement is particularly admirable for Tóibín because of the qualities revealed in his infamous diaries, " his desire, his passion, his erotic complexity, his openness, his doubleness, his sexual energy. " Baldwin’s greatness is both of subject, " the drama of his own life matching or echoing against the public drama, " and of style, the ﬁrst-person voice that " manages to be personal and private " (even as, Tóibín concedes, it is " histrionic " ). Almodóvar is fêted for " using the part of himself that is private, " for his love of garish colors and torch singers. For gay heroes, self-revelation and self-justiﬁcation, not to mention self-dramatization, are the modes by which identity has been won.
Less liberated ﬁgures do have their place in Tóibín’s heritage theater. Oscar Wilde " played out the role of the tragic queer, " a formulation that makes the tragedy that was Wilde’s life seem decidedly lesser and meaner. Elizabeth Bishop is of interest for having performed " a great and tragic lesbian love story. " Of Thomas Mann we learn that his homosexuality is " central to his work " and that " Germany and German culture were also vital for him. " Studying these lives has helped Tóibín " come to terms " with his own gay sensibility.
It’s only when Tóibín steps out of the role of self-consciously gay reader that his powers of discernment become acute. Of the " rough beast " with the " totally human " mouth of Francis Bacon’s painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Cruciﬁxion, he observes, " There is a sense of overwhelming pain here, but experienced by a creature who has known language, howling out a word rather than a cry, or a cry that has the memory of a word. "
The inquiry into homosexuality, into the ways in which it has entered into the work and lives of artists and writers, is of course an interesting line of literary and historical inquiry. But to ask that those lives tell the story of progress, as well as provide the reader with a " heritage, " is to lose sight of the very pastness of the past. An occasional expression of worry that he may have gotten something wrong in this regard — that dwelling on Bishop’s private letters, for example, might " overshadow " her work — doesn’t diminish Tóibín’s insistence that his " gay lives " offer up a usable " gay past. " In his use of them for the needs of a subjective present, the darkness isn’t in the end much illuminated.