The Language of the Tribe
Our point of departure will be the following passage from Proust’s The
M. de Charlus did not care to go about with M. de Vaugoubert. For the
latter, his monocle stuck in his eye, would keep looking round at every
passing youth. What was worse, shedding all restraint when he was
with M. de Charlus, he adopted a form of speech which the Baron
detested. He referred to everything male in the feminine, and, being
intensely stupid, imagined this pleasantry to be extremely witty, and
was continually in fits of laughter. As at the same time he attached
enormous importance to his position in the diplomatic service, these
deplorable sniggering exhibitions in the street were constantly inter-
rupted by sudden fits of terror at the simultaneous appearance of some
society person or, worse still, of some civil servant. ‘‘That little tele-
graph messenger,’’ he said, nudging the scowling Baron with his
elbow, ‘‘I used to know her, but she’s turned respectable, the wretch!
Oh! that messenger from the Galeries Lafayette, what a dream! Good
God, there’s the head of the Commercial Department. I hope he didn’t
notice anything. He’s quite capable of mentioning it to the Minister,
who would put me on the retired list, all the more so because it appears
he’s one himself.’’∞
How can one not recognize, in this scene written nearly a century ago and so
precisely linked to the time of its writing (by, for example, the reference to
the ‘‘telegraph messenger’’), something that might just as well be taking
place today, a scene that perhaps many gay people will have experienced, or
whose equivalent they will have witnessed? How many of them speak in the
feminine, about themselves or about boys passed on the street, yet police
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