In those days, the State would not allow gay people to marry, nor did it recognize “Domestic Partnerships.” We did not care about those facts. Most young people who were straight did not want to marry either. We all regarded marriage as a patriarchal institution in which a father sold his daughter to another man who thereby became her husband. “Husband,” after all, means “manager,” as in “animal husbandry” or in “to husband nature’s riches from expense.” Why would anyone want to enter into that kind of relationship? We wanted to be neither “husband” nor “wife.”
We called each other “Lover” or, while still beginning and not yet ready for that commitment, “Boyfriend.” Later we shied away from such the more emotional terminology, finding “Lover” perhaps too dramatic, and we chose “Partner” instead. This latter term implied something more objective, more durable, and more socially – even legally – recognizable. Besides, “Lover” still had some associations with the world of marriage – a Lover or a Mistress was an extra-marital consort with whom one committed adultery.
My first lover (for it was that long ago) studied Medieval Latin poetry. He discovered a body of love poems written by monks to other men and to boys. For centuries these works had lain hidden among manuscripts kept in monasteries and university libraries in England, France, and North America. He translated and published them, and his work was important in the development of a new field of gay studies. John Boswell, in his book Same-Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe cited my first lover’s work and acknowledged its importance.
But the thing that my lover taught me about Medieval Latin poetry that struck me most powerfully was the fact that poetry of that period was almost always (these love poems being some of the very few exceptions) written in the first person plural. We can hardly imagine such a thing: the first person singular, “I” being probably the single most reliable hallmark of modern poetry, that is, of poetry since at least Dickinson and Whitman, and probably before that. Yet for the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, poetry spoke in the voice of “we.”
What would a discourse or a poetics that speaks in the first person plural look like today? Over the past few decades a form of political discourse called “Identity Politics” has emerged. Identity Politics suggests that people vote for (and otherwise ally themselves with) politicians and movements which they feel reinforce themselves personally and their ways of living, so that the political landscape has come to be seen as consisting of racial politics, feminist or gender politics, gay politics, Hispanic politics, etc.
Similarly, politicians, pundits, and organizers talk all the time about “the community” of one kind or another. Even businesses, especially internet businesses, speak of their clientele as this or that “community” – Apple customers, Facebook members, and Uber riders are all “communities.”
But Identity Politics and Consumer Communities are only awkward attempts to characterize a position on issues that might obtain for a group. Because those who use this terminology have not consciously embraced the validity of speaking as “we,” they remain mired in the individualist world-view and attempt to mediate the limitations of that view with complex verbal and conceptual frameworks. Like Ptolemaic astronomers, they are stuck explaining that various planets stop in their orbits around the earth and then go backward (or “retrograde) for a while before stopping again and then proceeding in their usual direction. Where is the new Copernicus who can show that viewing things from the point of view that all the planets, even the Earth, revolve around the sun makes everything in the Heavens easy to understand? When will the collective view, rather than the view of atomized individuals, begin to address the nation’s problems – and the world’s – and to find solutions?
The Declaration of Independence justified the rebellion against the British throne by asserting certain “truths” as axiomatic. The ability to make these fundamental and undeniable claims came not by referring to Biblical or to any other authority. Jefferson simply wrote that “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” And this “we” was not merely a “we the undersigned” – it was not shorthand for the individuals who signed the document. It was with the voice of “the People” that Jefferson wrote, specifically “in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies.”
When will we hear the voice of the People speak for itself again?