Some reflections on Brokeback Mountain: The story

“What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger.” Annie Proulx – Brokeback Mountain.

I have yet to see Brokeback Mountain. However, I have read the short story and so my comments are based on the brief tale of the same name by Annie Proulx. About the movie, it’s by now like the Gulf Coast to me: I haven’t been there since Katrina but I think I can almost imagine it.

According to the popular press, the movie represents a new genre: gay romantic western. I would agree the short story is a western, but that’s about it. I think by most definitions, the characters are not gay and it does not read like a romance to me.

First of all, the story is not about gay cowboys. Many have pointed out that the two men at the center of attention were sheep herders; but fewer have recognized that the characters, if they can be labeled at all, are closer to bisexual than strictly gay. In the story, the men were portrayed as married and heterosexually responsive. Factor in the main event; two men having intermittent sexual flings, and it is clear the fictional pair were bisexually capable.

The actor who played bisexual sheep herder, Jack Twist, rejected the idea of gayness altogether. Jake Gyllenhaal, in an interview with Details magazine said: “I approached the story believing that these are actually straight guys who fall in love…These are two straight guys who develop this love, this bond. Love binds you, and you see these guys pulling and pulling and tugging and trying to figure out what they want, and what they will allow themselves to have.”

In the story, there are some interesting stereotypes. The only relatively good males are the two tragic heroes, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. On the other hand, their fathers are men behaving badly. Ennis’ father took his young son to see a dead man beaten unrecognizable for being gay and Jack recalls as a child missing the toilet and being beaten and urinated upon for this transgression.

Speaking of bad fathers, Brokeback Mountain includes a nod to a much maligned theory of causation of homosexuality in men: a distant, rejecting father. Both Ennis and Jack had the kind of dads that psychoanalysts say breed attractions to the same sex. According to same-sex parent theory, these young, hard luck bucks, lonely and unaffiliated, were looking for daddy’s love and found it by “satisfying some shared and sexless hunger” in each other’s arms. Out on the mountain, without women but with whiskey, times can get a might lonesome, pardner.

The tag line of the movie poster for Brokeback Mountain intends to teach us that “love is a force of nature.” Rather, I think the Ms. Proulx, perhaps unintentionally, portrays how sometimes the longing for love is also a force of nurture. Whether nature or nurture, the feelings are strong and human. Such well-written emotions compel a belief in their truth.

I realize apologists for the story could accuse me of denigrating homosexual coupling. I mean no such thing. I question the epic significance of male and female pairs engaged in the same kind of furtive search for something beyond the sameness of everyday life. It is the genius of the storyteller that makes finding some kind of tortured magic even plausible in the nexus of such ordinary characters. Every therapist has several Brokeback Mountain scenarios in the case files; they go by titles like the Ett-Mar Motel, the Office Next Door and Choir Practice.

And most of the players in these dramas believe their romance cannot be wrong because it feels so right. The experience of intense persistence, however, does not, in itself, make feelings represent something desirable and good.

This tension between what is and what ought to be is where we learn more about the moral philosophy of those consuming the story than the story itself. When those favorably disposed to gay advocacy watch it, they report a tragic story of love unrealized due to societal homoprejudice. In other words, despite the two broken families, fatherless children and lonely aging, they see the relationship between Jack and Ennis as representing something good, even epic.

Those who focus on the aforementioned negative consequences of the tryst render another moralistic generalization from the story: to wit, homosexuality invariably leads to dead-end relationships and despair.

I submit another point of view. As I read them, Ms. Proulx’s musings represent a reality that some men and women face in their lives. They are attracted to others of the same sex and experience conflict over that fact. For them, the feelings they experience just are. They did not choose or want them, nor do they find much change even with help. Being in circumstances where passion can overcome reflection makes the dilemma all the more raw, intense and, to use a religious word, tempting.

Some people decide that what is must signal what ought to be. Moral philosophers in this vein reason that if nature or God allows something to be felt intensely and changed only with great difficulty, then the experience must have been intended. Reasoning from naturalness has a long history in philosophy, and from reading voluminous reactions to Brokeback, this line of thought has a bright future. Many people seem to think this way.

Others however, do not believe their feelings, no matter how intense, signal anything authoritative about their true nature or the path they are obligated to follow. They believe, on the other hand, that what ought to be is defined for them either by a higher power or loyalty to prior commitments. Such people often populate houses of worship and lament the elevation of feeling over moral sense.

A test: what if Brokeback Mountain featured two men who kept their marital commitments instead of going fishing? Would such a film be reaping a harvest of Oscar nominations?