The Canadian Homosexual
Goldie, Terry, Journal of Canadian Studies
Criticism of Timothy Findley's The Wars has generally agreed that one of its major concerns is gender, and that this concern is focussed through the enigmatic central character, Robert Ross. But how is gender shaped by Robert's sexuality? Findley took Ross's name from one of the famous homosexuals of history, Oscar Wilde's lover, but whether or not Findley's Ross is homosexual is not easy to decide. The present study considers the sexual explorations within a later Findley novel, Headhunter, and uses this examination as a filter to view The Wars. The primary assertion is that Robert Ross and other characters in the novel can be seen as homosexual but through a quite complex portrait of homosexuality. In The Wars the possible homosexualities reflect an extremely ambivalent response to masculinity and to sexuality.
Timothy Findley has been well out of the closet for many years. His homosexuality has been common knowledge but at the same time surprisingly uncontroversial. Findley himself has said, "I am not a gay novelist but a novelist who is gay." This might seem to be simply a bit of flip wordplay, but a comparison suggests the reason that Findley makes this claim. Margaret Atwood is no longer "a feminist writer" in any limiting sense, nor just a mainstream writer who is a feminist, but a mainstream feminist writer. Findley's reaction and the position of his fiction in the world suggest that he has not found a similar role as a mainstream gay writer.
Yet Findley studies has become an industry, of which the Trent University conference was both a stock-taking and a branch plant. And The Wars is in many ways the beginning: what criticism exists for the earlier works has almost all been written after and in light of The Wars and some interpretation of Robert Ross, whether as subject or object. Probably the best summation is the relevant chapter in Lorraine York's Front Lines. York provides a representative description of gender in The Wars as a "world of conscripted heterosexuality" (39), but she does not ask what might seem an obvious question: is Robert Ross a homosexual, and if so what does this mean?
In "Beyond (Psycho)Analytic Signs: Erratic Homosexualities in Timothy Findley's The Wars," Brian Peters treats the horse as a symbol of virile homosexuality, particularly in connection to the relationship between Robert and Captain Taffler. Peters sees the homoerotic relationship between Robert and Taffler as moved in a homosexual direction through Robert's observation of sex between Taffler and the Swede and through the triangulation of the apparently destructive heterosexual relationship each has with Barbara. Some in the audience at the "Queer Nation?" conference disagreed and saw the novel as homophobic, albeit perhaps unintentionally so. They asked Peters to note any positive portrayals of homosexuality in the text. Peters dismissed the destructive homosexual moments, such as the rape of Robert, as explainable through other factors and reasserted that while there is no definitively positive homosexual moment in the novel, Robert, through symbols and relationships, is "queer."(1)
One way of considering The Wars's possible homotextuality, the resonances of same sex desire within a text, whether homoerotic or actively homosexual, perceivable from a purposefully gay reading, is by employing Headhunter as a filter. Headhunter depicts a dystopian Toronto oppressed by street gangs, AIDS and the disease sturnesemia, the latter used by the medical establishment to wage war on all disadvantaged groups from gays through immigrants through starlings, the "sturnes" who provide it with a name. In various ways Headhunter erases the binary between homosexual and heterosexual. Headhunter states, "The Club of Men had begun as an elite group of faggots"(387) looking at male models, but it had moved towards boys and then children of both sexes, often the men's own children. The title of the club is not the "heterosexual men" or the "fathers" but simply "the men. …