Holiday Issue: ‘Notes from Underground’

Published in: November-December 2023 issue.


OUR THEME is a nod to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and focuses on several people who, like the “Underground Man” in the Russian novella, lived in the shadows of mainstream society, which they grasped more clearly than others from their perspective as outsiders. What has forced them underground is their status as members of a sexual minority, which in turn becomes a critique of the society that has ostracized them.

            To take these figures in chronological order, the first was a younger contemporary of Dostoyevsky who also wrote strange novels, one of which was in fact titled A Strange Love. Here and elsewhere, Georges Eekhoud was remarkably candid both in his departure from society’s sexual mores and in his denunciation of their petty tyranny. And he was way ahead of his time, advancing a vision of sexual minorities forming their own communities on the margins of mainstream society.

            In the same year that A Strange Love was published (1899), a memoir came out titled The Autobiography of an Androgyne that documented the double life of writer Jennie June, who used masculine pronouns and described himself a “Hermaphroditos.” Shockingly explicit for its time, the book was published privately and distributed only to doctors and professionals. Sounding remarkably 21st-century, June proposed that “there are no sharp dividing lines between the sexes.”

            Jumping ahead a few decades, we meet an artist named Gertrude Sandmann who went “underground” in a more literal sense. A lesbian and a Jew living in Nazi Germany, Sandmann remained in Berlin throughout World War II, holing up in secret spaces, protected by friends. Even as her work was being destroyed by the Nazis, she was deleting all traces of herself as a person, and it worked. She died in 1981.

            Rainer Werner Fassbinder is thought of as an “underground” filmmaker in that he worked outside the studio system and created alternative films about the lives of marginal people pitched to the “art house” crowd. Akram Herrak focuses here on Fassbinder’s love affair with a Moroccan man named El Hedi ben Salem, an actor who shared the director’s passion for a life of spontaneous outbursts and intense highs and lows—exactly the kind of life that bourgeois society frowned upon.

            Another kind of “underground” life is exemplified by writer Mark Olmsted, who spent the better part of a year in prison in L.A. County and kept a diary, which he turned into the critically acclaimed book Ink from the Pen. Here Olmsted writes about a system of privilege that determines an inmate’s position in a well-defined social system, one in which being gay marks you as damaged goods but can also be a ticket out of some of the worst features of prison life