Arm in arm they take the Irish air together. Their eyes fix on targets ahead, save when they edge toward their counterpart’s pale face, his hard body. They greet friends and taunt rivals, wrestle and sweat, slap balls and hide smiles and walk on, southward.
Away from all others the two students talk and then argue. One wishes, after school, “to discover the mode of life or of art whereby” his “spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom,” and so to leave country and Church, and also this second man (or is he yet a boy?), who cannot sunder himself from Dublin and Catholicism, who actually, to this obstinate scholar announcing his plan of self-exile, represents both demons and must likewise be vanquished by distance. “Away then: It is time to go,” he thinks, still further, to Trieste, to Zurich, to Paris.
They talk for hours, for they are more than brothers saying goodbye to more than brotherhood. They are Stephen Dedalus and Cranly, the author’s stand-in protagonist and his last best friend, respectively, from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and they are maybe fucking.
By now we are all tired of the gay guy situation, but once I was 19, “straight,” and attending one of the more homosexually inclined universities in the United States, and it still felt fresh and potentially ruinous. There’s a special discomfort you can only experience by spending time around people who have done for themselves exactly what you want and have the power to do for yourself—since, after all, it takes only a few words, and you have a mouth, possess the requisite speech capabilities to do “it”—but do not have the willpower to see through, or do not have the strength to admit is a thing you need to see through, to the extent that you strenuously deny its existence as something you could or would ever need to do for yourself—since “you” is a straight male—so much so that your proximity to non-hets registers as an existential threat because said proximity corrupts the exquisitely unsound base layer of your wonky denial pyramid.
And moreover makes you wonder on an almost subconscious level about the morality of your denials if you nominally accept the proximate homosexual as a normal, moral person, and moreover accept whatever brand of non-hetero sexuality as inherently normal and moral, and yet cannot accept yourself as being at once normal and moral (read: acceptable as a self to yourself) and non-hetero, even if you would never vocalize this non-acceptance quagmire in terms of morality and normality.
Such was my overwrought state of mind when I picked up Joyce’s first novel. Portrait overcame me in my Manhattan dorm room. I read it through to morning. Finishing as the sun rose, I felt its voice, or a juvenile imitation of the same, sounding inside me; I thought in its patterns, or thought I did, and I believed in this union between Cranly and Dedalus, waveringly and then absolutely and then waveringly again.
The textual evidence for it approaches “vast and convincing” if one wishes to be convinced; it largely amounts to ambiguous subtext, in other words, and much of what I read into it a homoskeptic might giddily dismiss as ahistorical, context-averse projection. Joyce’s free indirect style, meanwhile, confuses his narrator’s and Dedalus’s observations and so serves as a corroborating witness. In the runup to their stroll a boy twice “rubbed his hands delightedly over his groins”; Cranly asks, “Who has anything to say about my girth?” and he and another boy “tussle” by way of answer until “their faces had flushed with the struggle and they drew apart, panting”; from a game we hear “the wet smacks of the ball” and its hitter “crying out with each stroke”; and so on in this plausibly if inadvisably deniable vein of gradually escalating homoerotic tension. (Less relevantly but worth mentioning: Early in the book, when Dedalus is a child, two boys flee from school after they’re caught “smugging,” i.e., engaging in an unspecified genre of gay play.)
Soon pseudo-heretic Dedalus is demanding of “strong and hard”-bodied Cranly whether he aims to “make a convert of me or a pervert of yourself” and, turning “towards his friend’s face,” sees “there a raw smile which some force of will strove to make finely significant.” “Thrilled by” Cranly’s touch, he cites the many confessions he has made to his friend, about what we don’t quite learn but—which is better—may speculate.Seeing it here, where no one else seemed able, seemed more valuable than looking where others had looked and found it and saying, ah, yes, there it is, gay subtext.
As I read these words, at my desk and then in bed, where I retreated as far as possible from my roommate’s gaze, I felt I only needed this book, to finish it, for here I was, closeted, begging silently to be affirmed in my belief that others desired as I did, that they begged for affirmation indirectly, safely, usually from the wrong person, as I did, and here I was finding it, plainly to me if invisibly to others, accreting in the work of an author famously bewitched by the flavor of his Nora’s farts. Cranly’s last, most pitiful words assuaged whatever doubts I may have harbored. Dedalus, by leaving Cranly, will not “have any one person…who could be more than a friend, more even than the noblest and truest friend a man ever had.” Here it was, wasn’t it, a stated desire for a more-than-friend, i.e., a man to whom one binds oneself emotionally and physically, i.e., a male soulmate? Dedalus, grasping Cranly’s meaning but unable to concede he grasps it, inquires at length, and to no answer, “Of whom are you speaking?”
The subtext sat there, behind a few millimeters of interpretive fabric, poking out obscenely at points, yet no one in my orbit seemed to notice it. They observed it in The Picture of Dorian Gray and Moby Dick—for straightforward reasons, perhaps, given the popularly known facts of Oscar Wilde’s downfall and Herman Melville’s other work, especially Billy Budd, and that book’s afterlife in Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. Regardless, I believed. And seeing it here, where no one else seemed able, seemed more valuable than looking where others had looked and found it and saying, ah, yes, there it is, gay subtext. Here I owned my perception, and my wonderment at my perception, and my wondering at the veracity and import and secretness of my perception: It was precious.
Like the birds that flit about the library in Portrait, and there signify the patterned avian swooping of thought, my mind flew to the boys I had known in high school, to the young men I still knew in college, who had swatted away my veiled advances without knowing exactly what they were to begin with—or without having known they knew? We might squeeze thighs, hump jeaned asses, tap sacs, show off soft genitals, or skinny-dip. (One should laugh before, during, and after such acts.) The lights might dim and porn begin to play from a projector. Boys might pull down the waistbands of their shorts to touch themselves under a blanket, or after excusing themselves to the bathroom or slinking behind a couch. Never in the open, save when enough substances had been consumed, and consciousness had so diminished, that at the maximum one might wake briefly to the thought, “Is my friend masturbating naked in the bed beside me?” Yes, we might squeeze and tap and more, but rules were rules. “More” could only mean so much.
Enthroned beside desire, then, was dejection, mine and Cranly’s, though in my case the latter wasn’t accompanied by the mutually humiliating sting of neat literary symbolism. In dismissing Cranly, Dedalus also rejects Dublin, and its commonness, and the common perversity and perverse commonness of remaining there, in the capital of a futureless non-state, instead of venturing overseas, to new lands. As Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated describes, Cranly’s name itself references an unwholesome union, that of Church and State, which were joined under another Cranly, who held the titles of archbishop of Dublin and lord chancellor of Ireland starting in 1397. Cranly shares Dublin’s allure, too.
Our hero retains the same vestigial if potent affections for man and land, for what is known and dear to heart but must, like the trembling hand (or lips) of a friend closing around one’s lonesome adolescent erection, be pushed away when adulthood beckons. And because too much is never enough, Dedalus also anoints Cranly his “decollated precursor” in the wake of their standoff, i.e., the soon-to-be beheaded John the Baptist to his Jesus. He needs Cranly to usher him into greatness—to baptize him, after a fashion—and then he needs Cranly’s head removed (from its place beside Dedalus’).
If a figurative beheading was to be my lot, at least I would know that, in a place consciously inaccessible to them, my executioners, or my Jesuses, or both, wanted as I wanted, or might; they might even let me touch them.
Time passed: A year, another six months. I had come half-out by the time I enrolled in a class on Joyce. I reread Portrait and then turned to Ulysses, which I consumed not in a night but over the course of some weeks alongside a reference text.
I might have sought it out sooner had I known that Dedalus, back in Dublin following his mother’s death, returns to split main character duties with Leopold Bloom and, in the final episode, Bloom’s wife, Molly. (He is the Telemachus to Bloom’s Odysseus and Molly’s Penelope.) In the first chapter, my eyes caught on a stream-of-consciousness interjection of “Cranly’s arm. His arm,” sequestered in its own paragraph immediately after the sentence “Hellenise it,” which ends the line prior. The associative logic of the early chapters signals that “Cranly’s arm” and “Hellenise it” must bear a (to Dedalus) logical relationship.
As helpful as Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated was to my reading, he had here issued unsatisfying explanations. His entry for “Hellenise it” details the thinking of the 19th-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who coined the verb “Hellenise,” defined as “to know in the light of a ‘disinterested’ and ‘flexible’ humanism,” and its opposite, “Hebraise,” “to do in the light of ‘the habits and disciplines’ of a revealed dogmatic truth.” His entry for “Cranly’s arm,” meanwhile, outlines the history of Cranly’s name and characterizes him as “a friend of Stephen’s” who’s now “estranged.” Gifford doesn’t make the obvious connection; he makes no connection.
“Hellenise”: What does it call to mind? Greece, the Ancient Greeks, yes. And what were the Greeks, at minimum some of the men? What were they notoriously? Horny homosexuals, or bisexuals, or pederasts, or men whose appetites and urges and ability to satisfy the same their society did not proscribe in a way recognizable to us today and who, however one wants to state it, had sex with each other and represented this sex in their art? Yes, yes.
So: positioning the word “Hellenise” immediately above the part of a man’s body that had once “thrilled” Dedalus, and that belongs to a student who wanted to be “more even than the truest and noblest friend” Dedalus ever had—could this mean, is it possible, could Joyce really be saying that a specter is haunting Dedalus—the specter of gay thoughts?
Could one reasonably attribute Cranly’s resurfacing some pages later, in the third chapter, to anything other than the unwelcome visitation of a ghost of same-sex desire? “Staunch friend, a brother soul: Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name. His arm: Cranly’s arm”: What else could this denote? What else, on June 16, 1904, when the entirety of Ulysses takes place, fewer than four years removed from the date of Wilde’s death, could link these thoughts. Settled, then: Dedalus and Cranly’s unspeakable desires had been spoken plainly enough. I stood not corrected but correct. Vindication tinted my thoughts. And yet the words seemed more important for what they hearkened back to than for what they certified for me, or for anyone else, in the present.
Belief abducts us. We ascend on its ship, glancing down as the world below diminishes, and, airborne, become someone new, someone who has seen what others haven’t, or seem not to have. Back on Earth, coded messages buzz into our ears over hidden frequencies. We know what most don’t, a concealed truth, and we know, or I knew, to keep it quiet, lest our neighbors’ alarm recasts us as that worrisome personage: “an abductee.” Then Ulysses comes. The ship lands. We emerge from our houses to shake hands and shout out the news and our foreknowledge until we feel ourselves withdraw amid the clamor. Though satisfying, this peaceful invasion seems almost unrelated to us. Our secret and its keeping, and that initial high of sudden, improbable flight—the terror and glory of liftoff—have already formed us into the enlightened, sky-scouring subjects we will remain: abductees minus the scare quotes. That others now believe our untold stories matters more to them than us. Besides, there’s more to life than aliens.
Ulysses is many things—the launchpad for literature’s greatest cumshot, the holy site of “Sirens’” eruptions, a nonpareil cuck novel, a puerile ode to Hamlet and the Odyssey— but it is not, at heart or more distally, secretly a “gay novel,” or a novel unlocked by a gay-attuned reading. (Such an approach more considerably enriches the thinner Portrait.) To quote a Ulysses character quoting Alexandre Dumas, “After God Shakespeare has created most.” Does Joyce follow? He’s as good a candidate as anyone. Everything is here, or at least something for everyone.
But for all he creates in Ulysses and Portrait (and Dubliners and, I will assume but cannot confirm, Finnegan’s Wake), we might consider Joyce nearer to Noah than to Shakespeare’s God, a collector and assembler and savior and lover of language instead of its genesis. Two of each word plus a thousand hybrids gathered and arranged so that they will survive in his ark as it voyages from mind to mind for eternity: Every inner Mount Ararat at which Ulysses docks will be repopulated by its phrases. The majority of species may not last after the vessel leaves port, but a few will thrive.
For example: “Cranly’s arm.” A properly systematic analyst, or one committed to following a thread its terminus, might feel compelled to contextualize Cranly’s arm as one among many hauntings in Ulysses, and an apparition that fades from Dedalus’s, and apparently Joyce’s, mind as the novel switches styles and trains its gaze on Bloom, whereas I prefer to cut the thread where convenient, to twirl it about my finger, slip it in my mouth, and swallowing, be joined to it, if only momently, so that Cranly’s arm twists inside me, saying come hither, away from the others, back into the past, into Portrait and that first second of apprehension, that we might be alone again. Let me thrill you.