Odd Couples and Double Acts, or Strange but Not Always Queer: some male pairs and the modern/postmodern subject

by Jennifer Livett

© all rights reserved

This essay has had a response from Monique Rooney.

How many men does it take to write an Encyclopedia, solve a mystery, wait for Godot, glean what afflicts you, compose an operetta, draw lines of territorialisation? Two, in a number of interesting cases. Consider Bouvard and Pécuchet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Vladimir and Estragon, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Tom Stoppard’s), Gilbert and Sullivan (Mike Leigh’s), Mason and Dixon (Thomas Pynchon’s); – not to mention (yet) that semi-fictional and perhaps oddest of all twosomes, Deleuze and Guattari, who have been called ‘the Laurel and Hardy of French thought’ (Pindar, 1998).

These are famous odd couples, where ‘odd’ indicates not primarily that each individual in the pairs is odd (although that’s also implied), but that the pairs are odd as pairs.Each twosome has a kind of unity, yet the nature of that unity is ambiguous. For instance; one Bouvard and one Pécuchet equals (among other things) we discover, one Cartesian homo duplex.Didi-Gogo, it is generally admitted, equals a Beckettian ‘pseudo-couple’, split self, ‘essy and possy’ as Lucky says, perceiver and perceived inseparable: ‘Sid by sid, two men…. Part of nit, al day. Two men, sid by sid’ (Watt,168). One Deleuze and one Guattari equals one ‘Deleuzoguattari’ (Goodchild, 1998:passim) or one ‘bicephalous wise man’ (Pindar, 1998) or one Anti-Oedipusand one A Thousand Plateaux– which together equal one Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

In fact, the seven couples ‘sid by sid’ above are suggestive as a set which speaks of the male subject, modernism/postmodernism and philosophy. They appear to be ways of representing in fiction/drama/film some revisions of the sense of self from Descartes onward: the self who thinks and therefore is, and that other self who is somewhere present to notice the thinking; a two-male ‘schizoid’ postmodern alternative to the oedipal (capitalist) romance.

The straightforward reading of these odd couples is that they are friendships (variously and even simultaneously reluctant, intimate, pugnacious, productive), but friendship is, has always been, odd in itself. It is ‘the anomalous relation: it exists outside the more thoroughly codified social networks formed by kinship and sexual ties…’. It has ‘a paradoxical combination of social importance and social marginality,’ an ‘indeterminate status among the various forms of social relations’ (Halperin, 1990:81). Deleuze and Guattari congratulate Maurice Blanchot for being today ‘one of the rare thinkers to consider the meaning of the word “friend” in philosophy’, a question ‘internal to the conditions of thought as such’ (What is Philosophy,4). Male friendship was vital to early Greek philosophy; it has certainly been central to narrative since the earliest times, sometimes overtly including a homoerotic bond, sometimes warily excluding it, often operating in an enigmatic midspace.

In One Hundred Years of Homosexuality,David Halperin discusses three male pairs from ancient texts (Achilles and Patroclus; Gilgamesh and Enkidu; David and Jonathan) noting that the first two pairs include socially accepted homoerotic desire, but arguing that the Biblical description of David and Jonathan’s mutual attachment ‘passing the love of women’ should probably be read as meaning that their love is remarkable precisely because it does not have a sexual component. The ambiguity arises because one of the results of friendship’s anomalous status is the absence of a vocabulary to describe it. A conjunction of two must use the terms of either kinship or conjugality: friends are like brothers, or like a marriage. To complicate matters, a two-male friendship in the ancient world was so far the paradigm case of human love, loyalty and unity of mind (whether or not of bodies), that in an odd reversal, the kinship and conjugality invoked to describe it eventually became ‘mere imagesof friendship’ (Halperin, 1990:85).

In Plato’s Republic,for example, the utopian effort to unite all the citizens
of the just city in the bonds of fraternal love effectively does away with
the social significance of real brothers and sisters, of both kinship and
conjugality altogether. Having begun by borrowing its social significance
and representational elements from kinship and conjugality, in other words,
male philia ends up (in Plato’s fantasy at least), displacing them
entirely (Halperin, 1990:86).

This is the ideal of male friendship, philia,(not eros), that enters the Hellenic-Christian tradition, is disseminated through Europe by the Church and ‘classical’ education, and continues to inhabit democracy as a paradigm, ‘buddyness’, ‘mateship’, alongside the oedipal-capitalist family.

Plato’s Symposiumconfirms the self-as-two. In this much but often selectively quoted account, the original human is a two-faced, four-armed, four-legged, double-genitalled creature, severed in two by Zeus for misdemeanours. What is less well remembered in the Christian tradition, as noted by Freud (in Beyond the Pleasure Principle) and Halperin, is that these double-humans are supposed to have occurred in not one but three sexual forms; double male, double female, and androgynes: thus heterosexual desire forms only a third of ‘natural’ human coupling. To this background one could add the long history of the legend that all human pregnancies begin as twins; the myth of the shadowy, vanished womb-twin (Hillel Schwartz, 1996: Ch 1).

If this begins to make the odd couples seem not only explicable but ‘natural’, there is still a hitch. In literature, the archetype of devoted male friendship is ‘the hero and his pal’ which Halperin examines in an eponymous chapter. It’s a crucial characteristic of this archetype that the friendship displays an internal hierarchy; one of the two men takes precedence in both friendship and narrative. The ‘odd couples’ do not fit this model, they are not hierarchical. One of the pair may at times seize cunning advantage, but this is brief and always reversible. It has nothing to do with any essential difference in rank, wealth or fame. Neither partner is a lone hero and neither a ‘sidekick or faithful retainer’. (The case of Sherlock Holmes and Watson may look dubious, but I shall argue further for their odd coupleness). The essence of the odd couples’ unity is difference-within-similarity, especially of outlook, ideology, Weltanshauung. While ‘hero and pal’ narratives are centrally concerned with social action, particularly epic or dramatic, the odd couples largely abandon physical activity for mental gymnastics and dialectical engagement.

‘Hero and pal’ narratives persist ubiquitously, of course, in far more quantity than odd couples, to the present day. Although Halperin cites only the Lone Ranger and Tonto in the twentieth century, a torrent of other dynamic duos suggest themselves between The Iliadand Batman Forever.Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller are two of the most influential master-servant models, and Leslie Fiedler brilliantly examines the special case of black and white pairs in the nineteenth-century American novel; Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, Ishmael and Queequeg, and Huck Finn and Jim, in his essay ‘Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!’ (Fiedler, 1995:142-151). From the eighteenth century though, they slip out of ‘high art’ and into mock-heroic, satire and ‘camp’, except in some particular genres: boys’ adventure, detective story, film, television (where they are still susceptible to camp and comic takeover). One of the main reasons for this was a growing uneasiness in Christian Western society at the hint of ‘Greek love’ which clung to the ‘hero and pal’.

Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Eve Sedgwick argues, narratives of male heroic action clearly demonstrate the effects of homophobia in European culture (Sedgwick, 1985: Chs 5-6). In what she calls the ‘paranoid gothic’ (like William Godwin’s Caleb Williams,Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), a male hero is doubled by another murderous male figure. Sedgwick maintains that

the paranoid Gothic powerfully signified, at the very moment of crystallization
of the modern capitalism-marked oedipal family, the inextricability from that formation of a strangling double-bind in male homosocial [relations] (Sedgwick, 1990:187).

In a society where men worked and lived closely together in the military, in ships, schools, universities, male friendship was at the same time, ‘compulsory’ and ‘prohibited’, compulsory because lives might depend on mutual reliance, prohibited (a hanging offence) if it showed signs of being too close.

Mapping narrative disturbances caused by this, Sedgwick sees a deepening crisis at the end of the nineteenth century, a ‘male homosexual panic’ which she traces through Billy Budd,The Picture of Dorian Gray,and Henry James’s ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. She adduces to her argument Foucault’s widely accepted proposition that the idea of a homosexual identity (as opposed to homosexual acts), crystallised in European society around 1870 when the term homosexual began to appear. (Halperin dates this slightly later: 1990:15,17 n.2,155).

Sedgwick’s convincing argument only makes it the more odd that a series of narratives about equal pairs should arise in the last quarter of a century particularly tense with homophobic suspicion: Flaubert wrote Bouvard et Pécuchetfrom 1879-80; the first of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet,appeared in 1887. Equal pairs, one might think, would be even more disturbing than those hero and pal ‘dyads’, as Halperin calls them, where difference in rank, wealth or fame might imply at least a factitious barrier to over-intimacy. Certainly in Les Deux Greffiers(The Two Court Clerks,1841) the brief story by Barthelémy Maurice on which Flaubert is said to have based Bouvard et Pécuchet,the two clerks are married men: wives also deflect suspicion of male friendship. But Flaubert makes Bouvard and Pécuchet bachelors. (Bouvard’s marriage has ended in separation but he is ‘experienced’ with women, Pécuchet has often been in love, but is reluctantly still a virgin.)

The rise of the ‘bachelor’ as the mid-Victorian ‘representative man’ is itself, Sedgwick argues, at least in part, a response to a homophobic society. Domesticated, urban, single, unwilling or unable to marry, attracted to women but often equally repelled by them or wary of their seductive powers, the bachelor can only be mock-heroic: ‘not merely diminished [from the Gothic hero] and parodic himself, he symbolizes the diminution and undermining of certain heroic and totalizing possibilities…'(191). ‘What is most importantly specified is [the bachelor’s] pivotal class position between the respectable bourgeoisie and bohemia,’ (193) that is, his right to the fullest occupation of the male subject position, at once in the contemporary centre and the avante-gardeof it. Yet this is a position which is culturally under attack, gradually being diminished and undermined.

The two bachelors Bouvard and Pécuchet meet and ‘experience an emotional contact which in other contexts would be called love at first sight’ (Bouvard and Pécuchet,1986: 8); ‘they had at once become attached to each other by secret fibres’ (27);’the union of these two men was absolute and profound’ (31). They are both thirty seven, both, significantly, copy-clerks. The beginning of their story forms what would normally be the end of a bourgeois romance: an unexpected inheritance, sharing of worldly goods, a settling down domestically together to what they imagine will be ‘happily ever after.’ What homophobia fails to suppress here is the Hellenic-Christian idealised male friendship, like Flaubert’s own with Alfred le Poittevin (surely another source for Bouvard and Pécuchet). After Poittevin’s death Flaubert, whose sexual attentions to women are not in doubt, said: ‘I see that I have never loved anyone – man or woman – as I loved him.’

Flaubert’s novel records Bouvard and Pécuchet’s progress from ontology to epistemology. Bou-Pec begin their retirement with agriculture, which sends them back into abstract questions about the human subject: cooking leads to chemistry, ‘hygiene’, geology, architecture, history, aesthetics, religion, politics, philosophy, magnetism, medicine. And what, therefore, is ‘man’? They work their way, absurdly, riotously, through contemporary discourses of knowledge, consulting Spinoza, Amoros, Deleuze (an earlier one), Locke, Archimedes, Plato, Descartes:

‘A being within being? Homo duplex! Come now! Different
tendencies reveal opposing motives, that’s all’ (Flaubert, 1881:203)

After all, they decide, metaphysics is useless. One can live without it. Later though, new meditations give rise to new thoughts: ‘they approached each other, afraid to lose [these thoughts]; and metaphysics returned (210)’. They proceed by thinking-as-two, a Deleuzoguattarian ‘univocity’ which ‘is not just a matter of two friends engaged in thought, “it is thought itself … which requires this division of thought between friends” ‘(Deleuze quoted Pindar, 7).

The marriage of true minds in friendship creates a binary thinking-machine which both doubles and splits the unsatisfactory, self-questing single subject. Thinking can be done and perceived to be done, not dialectically, but in some more nearly ideal external way which yet allows for self-checking, confirmation and denial. Is this, fictionalised, the death of the ‘old, closed, centred subject of inner-directed individualism’, and the tentative emergence of a ‘new non-subject of the fragmented or schizophrenic self’ (Jameson, 1991:344-345)?

After sundry carnal misadventures Bou-Pec eliminate women from their ‘socius’. They almost adopt two children but find them obnoxious, and so ‘tenderly embrace’ each other and settle down at their specially-made double desk to produce their own episteme, their Dictionary of Received Ideas.They make a will ensuring that on the death of either, their joint property will pass, as in a marriage, to the survivor. What we have here, just after Sedgwick’s ‘crystallization of the modern capitalism-marked oedipal family’, seems to be a kind of countering ‘schizo’-family, a ‘non-subject’ or ‘group subject’ of two, an anti-capitalist Deleuzoguattarian ‘fractal’ pair who refuse to allow any space between them for the exchange of either goods, money, or women: the only exchange between them is words. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, this is a ‘molecular’ twosome; not the One and the Other of psychoanalytical identity but the double which allows a continuous ‘becoming’. Bouvard and Pécuchet begin to show how ‘odd couples’ may resemble the ‘schizophrenic’ postmodern, of which there are several interrelated but slightly different versions.

The historian Arnold Toynbee is one of those who have proposed the last quarter of the nineteenth century as the end of ‘the modern’ and the beginning of a ‘post-modern’; Fredric Jameson sees Sartre’s discussion of Flaubert’s style (his sentence), in The Idiot of the Family,as a recognition of ‘certain latent…properly postmodernist, features of Flaubert’s style … anachronistically foregrounded’ (Jameson, 1991:30). As Ihab Hassan indicates: ‘culture is permeable to time past, time present, and time future’ (Hassan, 1981:264). The modern and postmodern in this respect can be regarded as an overlapping historical flow operating at various speeds in different discourses and places, in which the anxious subject advances and retreats between the subject positions of the Enlightenment cogito, the alienated modern and the postmodern late-capitalist ‘schizo-subject’.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoid or disjunctive postmodern, ‘schizophrenia’ is not a pathological condition, nor exactly a metaphor, but like ‘minor literature’, a ‘mobile paraphrase’ (TP, 104) coined to express in this case the disjunctive ‘outerlimit of capitalism or the end point of its most intimate tendency’ (Frank, 1983:172). The word is also, confusingly, used to refer to the ‘cure’ of the capitalism disease, since the object seems to be not to fight capitalist schizophrenia (since late capitalism has proved that it can absorb all opposition), but to embrace it, carry it into a form of disjunctiveness which is like a defiant, energetic bricolage,a process of ‘inventive connection’ seeking to evade oedipal-capitalism; a ‘twoness’ which becomes ‘a relay to multiplicity’ (Massumi, 1992:1).

Fredric Jameson’s version of schizophrenic postmodernism, more aesthetic than philosophical, is related to Deleuze and Guattari’s, but based on the work of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The postmodern is schizoid in Jameson’s view (his slogan is ‘difference relates’), because it accords with Lacan’s description of clinical schizophrenia as ‘a breakdown in the signifying chain’. While the horror of this as a personal pathology is not in doubt, as a description of postmodern aesthetic and philosophical practice, it is again, strategic and anti-capitalist.

Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson stories repeatedly show the treacherous disjunction between sign and signified. Holmes the bachelor is, according to Watson, ‘the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen’ (Conan Doyle, 1892; ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’: 1). Watson cannot read the signs or reads them inaccurately; Holmes reads them ‘scientifically’, Watson as artful narrator controls the fiction which unites the two. Like Deleuzoguattarian binary producing machines, the Holmes deduction-machine and the Watsonian writing-machine approach the signs. What the signs show is that money, politics and sexuality (capitalism’s power, knowledge and desire) continually refigure and disguise themselves. All the males are doubled, Holmes in his brother Mycroft and Professor Moriarty (evil-double), Watson in Inspector Lestrade (lesser mind, law incarnate as Watson is medicine incarnate).

Holmes and Watson are not, as Bouvard and Pécuchet are, alike. Holmes’s body, thin to anorexia, able to be disguised as any body, can be discounted. He plays the violin (art). Watson is educated medical mind (science) who deals with the body/cadaver, and is married (offstage). Thus the two take up a series of shifting reciprocal positions; mind/body, science/art, culture/nature, like the binaries in a heterosexual marriage, but one wherein both parties are fully eligible for the male subject position in the culture, thus another ‘marriage’ in which the oedipal turns schizoid. As Catherine Belsey has shown in her enlightening discussion, the Holmes and Watson stories reveal in their occlusion of the female ‘the truth which ideology represses, its own existence as ideology itself’ (Belsey, 1980:117).

Whereas Bouvard and Pécuchet and Holmes and Watson investigate worlds contemporary with their authors, Vladimir and Estragon and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inhabit the timeless, directionless space of the alienated late modern/early postmodern. What comes between Holmes and Watson and this next pair of odd pairs is two wars, a Holocaust and Hiroshima. Deleuze and Guattari admit these factors for philosophy:

There is indeed catastrophe, but it consists in the society of brothers
or friends having undergone such an ordeal that brothers and friends
can no longer look at each other, or each at himself, without a ‘weariness’,
perhaps a ‘mistrust’, which does not suppress friendship but gives it
its modern color and replaces the simple ‘rivalry’ of the Greeks. We
are no longer Greeks, and friendship is no longer the same…
(What is Philosophy?: 107)

Beckett’s couple knowingly invoke Bouvard and Pécuchet; Stoppard’s play carries intertextually both Vladimir and Estragon and Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The odd couples multiply, accrete and fracture, the male subject is double or nothing, the two move towards multiplicity; Mercier and Camier, Hamm and Clov, Watt and Knott, textual simulacrum or copy without original, always looking towards a line of flight. Outside the text, this might be a machine – no longer Hugh Kenner’s glorious-inglorious ‘Cartesian Centaur’ (man and bicycle) but a set of interacting Deleuzoguattarian ‘literary-machines’ which re-make the subject.

At almost the same period, the passing on of literary authority from one generation of (male) writers to another, which Harold Bloom notoriously proposes as oedipal (his ‘anxiety of influence’), becomes, for Deleuze at least, in the philosophical line, revision as male rape, textual buggery:

What got me through that period [of studying classical philosophy]
was conceiving of the history of philosophy as a kind of ass-fuck …
I imagined myself approaching an author from behind and giving
him a child which would indeed be his but would none the less be
monstrous (Deleuze quoted in Massumi, 1993:2).

The monstrous child of the two is the work of art/philosophy, thought-between-two solidified into an effect in the world.

At this point it becomes necessary to admit that Beckett’s and Stoppard’s pairs of pairs, and equally Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon and Mike Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan, would each need a separate article of their own to begin to do justice to their plis.All one can do here is to point and sketch.

This textual Mason and Dixon and this cinematic Gilbert and Sullivan are a pair of postmodern couples employed in ironizing and reworking history in order to position the present. As Pindar points out, Pynchon evidently knows Deleuze and Guattari’s work. This is clear from some of the meditations on lines of territorialization in Mason and Dixon.Equally, Pynchon’s long manoeuvres with American capitalism have apparently given him at least some common ground with their ‘geophilosophy’. Physical and political positioning of the subject is exactly the task of Mason and Dixon, drawing the line not East/West as Deleuze and Guattari have famously discussed, but north/south, splitting the American subject, doubling America. Position on earth is not available without recourse to the stars: the metaphysical is again both present and absent and it takes an argumentative, scientific, lecherous, doubled, schizoid pair to attack, defend, calculate and divide it. For Deleuze and Guattari American literature has always been ‘minor’ in their idiosyncratic, favourable sense of the word (‘a potential for audacitywithin a major language’ [Marks, 104]), in which literature becomes diagnostic physician to the diseased culture.

With Topsy-Turvy,Mike Leigh’s re-presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan, history speaks to the present about the nature of the artistic process. As I have argued elsewhere (siglo 13:54-58) Leigh makes the film a meditation on artistic partnerships, including that between Leigh himself, his long-time producer Simon Channing-Williams and cinematographer Dick Pope, creating a focus on the production of theatrical and cinematic works as ‘group’ arts, bodies-without-organs, the product of two-become-multiple minds, multiple skills, mechanical and electronic reproduction in which sets of fractured images are made to cohere in however inconclusive and temporary a way (again Jameson’s ‘difference relates’). This is no longer the 70s director as controlling auteur.the coupling may be fragile, with the inbuilt schizophrenia of words and music, image and text, but the isolated, alienated subject position is a thing of the past.


Jennifer Livett is an Honorary Research Associate at the School of English and European Languages and Literatures at the University of Tasmania.

This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

[Jennifer Livett would like to thank Dr Elizabeth McMahon for the Freud reference and to Dr Ruth Blair for alerting her to the Leslie Fiedler essay just as this article was going up.]


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Livett, Jennifer, ‘An Object All Sublime: Mike Leigh’s Topsy -Turvy‘(siglo 13,winter 2000)
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Stoppard, Tom, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead(London: Faber, 1968)
Topsy -Turvy,a Mike Leigh film, October Films, 2000

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