Virginia Woolf and John Cheever are two writers who understood the delights of intimacy with the same sex, as well as with the opposite one. Sometimes, for those of us who are bisexual*, gender does not matter at all – there is no particular ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ trait that draws you – there is simply a connection with the person, a desire to touch their skin: hairy or hairless or round or ridged or hard or soft. A man’s lips can be soft and large, a woman’s hands can be rough – sometimes the lack of difference is surprising.
In contemporary Western society, dominant narratives of love and sexuality do not easily encompass sexual or emotional abundance, flexibility, or fluidity. Additionally, for us bisexuals, the potential to be attracted to all kinds of people can be as overwhelming as it is wonderful, particularly as we grapple with this abundance within the confines of certain norms and binaries (either/or). The result is a certain anxiety. We love and desire, while being ‘wracked by the visible and the invisible world’, as expressed by Cheever. Here, I will briefly explore and embrace this anxious abundance, the ways it can be expressed, incorporated or celebrated within a life, and through words and work.
Bisexual desires, in one way or another, often have to be contained. In bisexual writing – broadly, works by bisexual writers – there is often a sense of desires coming up against a constraint, an excess accompanied by a sense of overwhelm, even if it is not directly related to sexuality. ‘Take away my affections and I should be like sea weed out of water; like the shell of a crab, like a husk,’ writes Virginia Woolf in a letter to Ethel Smyth in 1930.
The marriage of Leonard and Virginia Woolf was built on a deep and genuinely loving friendship, and Virginia also had a longstanding affair with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West. Her abundant affections, as expressed here and elsewhere, are more than simply sexual feeling: they relate to a ‘burning and pressing sense of the importance and lovability and curiosity of human life’. There’s a wrought sense of wanting to encompass not just one aspect of life or another, but all of it.
It is a kind of anxiety related to abundance, reflected throughout Woolf’s fiction both thematically and stylistically – the way she gathers time and space, internal thoughts and external environments, into her sentences, looking out and in and back and on, with perfect placement of commas, semicolons and dashes, and fewer of those full stops (which contain) than you’d find in other novels of similar size. As in Mrs Dalloway: ‘…and she smiled, pocketing her shilling, and all peering inquisitive eyes seemed blotted out, and the passing generations – the pavement was crowded with bustling middle-class people – vanished, like leaves, to be trodden under, to be soaked and steeped and made mould of by that eternal spring…’.
Anxieties around abundance are also expressed in much of John Cheever’s work, both creative and personal, via the tension between light and dark, and through contrasts. Cheever’s short story ‘The Cure’ is about a man whose wife has recently left him. The man’s newfound freedom is shadowed by fantasies about dying, intense desires – such as to reach out and touch a stranger’s ankle – and a deep loneliness that he attempts to anaesthetise with martinis and films. He also begins to be visited by a peeping Tom in the night. He develops a familiarity and reluctant affinity with this creep, as he sits up reading, knowing he’ll come by the window. The peeping Tom is a symbol for a path the protagonist could take, a dark wrong turn. In the end, he desperately begs back his wife. In his diaries and through stories such as this one, Cheever expresses his anxiety around abundance, around desiring something other, or more, than a straight, ‘good’ life.
The character’s oscillating desires between the woman’s ankle, the obliteration of martinis and films, and the straight home life as he had it, are painfully resonant to me. Though ‘The Cure’ does not feature overt same-sex desire, it expresses a longing for abundance that is restricted by a particular binary (in this case single/married), and the anxiety around this longing.
It must be said that this notion of abundance in relation to romantic love and sexuality does not preclude a bisexual person from monogamy (though it’s true that neither Cheever or Woolf were monogamous). In fact, that abundance channelled into direct flow may be powerful – loving as stream-of-consciousness prose. It is just that it is essential that any tensions within the self, any anxieties or overwhelm, can be aired. Partners of bisexuals, take note.
Creative writing can be an exploration of abundance for me, too. I realised recently that in my book, Captives, there is a binary lava: a series of tensions in the section headers, molten rocks in a larger flow. I am never one or the other, but both: in/out, here/there, with/without, up/down, and so on.
Cheever was an alcoholic, Woolf a depressive, for many complex reasons beyond what can be raised here, but their tussle with abundance – physical, psychological, emotional – within confining structures is evident in their personal writing and in their work. A positive embrace of this state may assuage the anxiety of people who are spread over that slash between straight and gay, who might also share in a related psychological or emotional opulence, who might be trying to find ways of being comfortably abundant and uncontained.