Man Talk: “Brokeback Mountain” and the Androgynous Mind

This seems a prime week to think about the (often problematic) implications of telling a story—in particular a queer story—that is not one’s own. Theoretically, all fiction must tell a story that hasn’t actually come to pass, but fiction also makes reality claims insofar as it claims to represent real categories of people: doctors, prisoners, Chicanas, lesbians, what have you. If someone starts flying in a book, we as readers gather that the book is fantasy; but if the subject in flight is Chinese, we nevertheless suspect that the author is referring to and somehow making a statement about real Chinese people, not their irrelevant fantasy equivalent. Professor D-T pointed out in the reading questions that Chu T’ien-Wen is a heterosexual woman writing about homosexual men, and Annie Proulx is in the same boat. The same sexual mismatch between author and subject was identified as the bugbear of, for example, The Autobiography of Red, which some critics claimed used the social alienation of the protagonist, a gay teenager, to stand in for Anne Carson’s (the poet) feelings of estrangement unrelated to sexual identity. It probably wouldn’t surprise us to learn that some women might identify their unease in a patriarchal world with gay men’s unease with oppressive and (in the case of “Brokeback”) violent heteronormativity, but is that identification, however well-intentioned, ethical? In whom do we have the right to see ourselves?

Authorial transvestitism seems to me to be especially at issue in “Brokeback Mountain.” Masculinity arguably functions as the aesthetic and thematic core of Proulx’s story, so that the gruff “voice” of the author becomes an obstreperous contributor to the story’s meaning. From the opening images of the story, the frank, masculine narrator cathects candor with sex: “[Ennis] gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair…He turns on the tap and urinates in the sink, pulls on his shirt and jeans, his worn boots” (1). Already we have an image of our protagonist’s naked body, and specifically his pubis hair; we also imagine him getting dressed, as if the scene were post-coital—and in a sense it is, as “Jack Twist was in his dream” (1). Later in the story we learn to associate urination, also on display in this brief prologue, with sexual shaming—Jack’s father punishes him for his incontinence by peeing on him, and Jack associates the trauma with the Freudian threat of castration (via circumcision): Jack feels he has been “marked” and “branded” by his father by urine and by the knife. The story’s opening moment, then, in which Ennis moves through an apparently woman-free space with the freedom to scratch himself and pee in the sink, hits us with frank behavior, frank writing, and frank desire all at once, and associates all three with the absence of the feminine.

Of course, Proulx’s (feminine) specter looms—and the form of the prologue, if not its content, firmly establishes the story in the traditionally feminine form of the flashback. Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own of the necessity of having an “androgynous mind” in order to write; for her, the (psychic) genders must coexist in the artist in order to allow for a kind of self-pollination:

“And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female…The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating….Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine.”

Perhaps imagining oneself in a different body is a prerequisite for writing any fiction; but it seems Woolf is pointing to a less concrete gender-bending. Specifically, it seems she’s interested in genre-breaking as an essential component of true creation. To be “fully fertilized” is to incorporate both masculine and feminine elements, which essentially means true art can fall neither into a neatly feminine nor into a neatly masculine genre. (Woolf’s use of Coleridge as an example seems deliberate in this regard; romantic poetry is noted for its identification of “masculine” egoism with “feminine” fantasy, romance, and indulgence in emotion.) The genre of “Brokeback Mountain” is classically “feminine”—it’s essentially a love story, with no action, a heavy emphasis on relationships, and few focal characters. It’s the story of deep time, of lives unfolding, and the obligations of family. This is not an adventure tale, not a bildungsroman, not a novel. If the cowboy motif and bare (and often brutal) descriptions are masculine, the form and emotional content are pointedly feminine—and indeed Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own that interruption and brevity characterize female writing.

Perhaps it’s useful to consider why, in Proulx’s story, the climactic moment is a “silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger.” The story seems fundamentally to wonder whether an androgynous mind can ever be “sexless,” or whether it must vacillate between the masculine and feminine—whether the “silent embrace” is the only locus of sexlessness. What would it mean to make a sexless text rather than a sexful one? Is speech fundamentally gendered? In any case, it’s apparent that Proulx’s characters themselves struggle with gender ambivalence, in all their manliness. Jack’s circumcision makes literal the issues of emasculation: “I seen they’d cut me different like you’d crop a ear or scorch a brand.” He is marked territory, too—some other author’s text—as maybe we all are.

-H.D.

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