Orals Diary, 2

Another two days staving off jetlag and mild boredom in the Upper Reading Room, another two orals books despatched. I move on tomorrow to Sedgwick’s Between Men, and as I trudged down and then up the circling seventeenth-century staircase on yet another unnecessary bathroom break, I remembered that five and a bit years ago I took a selfie (before we called them selfies) in the Easter vac—my first Easter vac (and my first Easter)—reading Between Men for the first time outside the Rad Cam on a sunny day (it was March, and too cold to sit outside the Rad Cam, but I was trying to look picturesque), because I thought it might help me with Symonds. I am still of an age when five years seems like a very long time, long enough for me to have been a different person then. I saw someone today in the street whom I first met when he was a first-year undergrad: now he’s a fourth-year, and he and his comrades finished their finals this week. My youngest grad-student friends here are submitting their doctoral theses over the next few months. I have yet to submit my exams—and I am still here, still in love; though oddly alone, while others are moving on.

It’s a strange and overdetermined segue, but in Diana Fuss’s introduction to the volume Inside/Out, which she edited in 1991, she writes of the instability and uncertainty of language used to describe gay and lesbian identities and desires, the collapse of language in the face of concepts which seemed at such radical disjuncture, it appears, with the society in which many American theorists of the ’80s and early ’90s lived. This is evident also in the second half of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which I covered yesterday and today, in which the past looms large in how to think about lesbian and gay identities but in which almost none of those writing about it were trained as historians. I googled one after another, found them to be emeritus in a great English department somewhere—but only John D’Emilio, in his essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” made what seemed to me to be the kind of argument a historian would make. I didn’t agree with the heavy causal weight he puts on a marxist narrative of economic development in the essay, but his desire to relate the emergence of new ways of thinking about sex, the family, and society to other social and economic transformations is simply and recognizably what historians do. It was very different—puzzlingly—from David Halperin’s contribution, a set of facts Symonds could have told you about paiderastia in classical Athens (which is made to stand, as Symonds made it, for all of antiquity); or from Martha Vicinus’s and Gloria Hull’s essays, which are focused on recovering a lesbian past that I am not so sure really existed, even a hundred or two hundred years ago. I know all too well the historical context that might have given Halperin a recourse to such tropes, and I look forward to engaging further with them when I reread his One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, also on my list. But I lack the context to make sense of Vicinus’s or Sue-Ellen Case’s sense that it is a radical and essential move to emphasize the presence of butch/femme dynamics in lesbian communities. Perhaps a reader might be able to explain to me why this seemed so politically progressive in the days of the Reader, why it seems important to Vicinus to conflate historical women assuming masculine-gendered dress and behavior and historical women having romantic friendships with other women. Of course, now that we have the category “transgender,” and it is so culturally widespread, we don’t need or want to do this. But maybe the present and its politics are not the place from which to write of who people in the past wanted to be and whom they wanted to love, and maybe Vicinus’s “mannish lesbians” (in the 19th century! really!) or Ulrichs’ anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa (for he was a queer theorist too, in a sense) are no more transgender than they are gay; they are simply themselves, no matter how earnestly the academics-who-are-most-decidedly-not-historians, writing around the year that I was born, try to throw all the forces of Lacan and Derrida at them.

And so Oxford, which is sui generis: its conservatism (which I have begun to liken to that of the Catholic Church) resisting calls, however well-intentioned and urgent, to become otherwise; the kind of mystical force it exerts on its captive audience (me) defying easy explanation. In Howards End the most ill-fitting of all the Schlegel siblings, the brother Tibby, describes Oxford, not any man (or woman, but really the alternative is a man), as the object of his love. It’s been a while since I read the novel, but as I recall Tibby’s location in the plot is uneasy; he’s not swept up in the plot-driving “muddles” that his sisters are and that are the larger point to what Forster does as an author. It’s as if Oxford is a kind of unstable sexual orientation: if we were to put it in Fuss’s densely theoretical Inside/Out framework, we would surely say that it’s the slight puff of air that causes the deconstructionist house of cards (or should we say house of binaries) to come falling down.

I kept forgetting it was Saturday today, and wondering why the library was empty and the city centre clogged with tourists (if living in New York has done anything for me, it has made me exceedingly impatient with large groups standing and gawping on narrow pavements). But on Saturdays the Bodleian closes at 3, as it has at least since I have known it (Sunday opening hours, however, an innovation that occurred in my time, much like the Gladstone Link, the old tearoom and its successor, the reopening of the New Bodleian, and other such things that make it seem as if I have been here for an age). And so, now that I no longer have borrowing privileges, I set out to walk back to my accommodation along the scenic route—in both senses, that is; a detour and the Thames, on whose banks lie some of the most beautiful places I have ever beheld. It turned out to be Eights, wouldn’t you know it, and you couldn’t have picked a better case to illustrate how Oxford has not changed in 150 years, despite what should have been the grand upheaval of the admission of women: the boats half female (the marshals, though, mostly not), yet the women’s-college boats mostly men, and the towpath was clogged by people and the air thick with the echoes of coxes’ commands. I don’t care much for sport, but there it is, at once terrible (I read a couple books for my last term paper that in part blame Oxbridge rowing for World War I) and banal. So the front bedroom of the sturdy brick terraced house which I am currently inhabiting, about a hundred years old, on a side street in East Oxford next to a pub and a playing field. A hundred years ago, a family of six whose pater familias worked in the auto factory? Today, an alternative medicine clinic on the ground floor, and a spinster temporarily lodged in the flat above: with its retro wallpaper and its unconvincingly boarded-up fireplace, the stair-railing giving her déjà vu every time she walks out onto the landing and thinks of every other identical terraced house in England she’s ever entered, and the people a hundred years ago who did so before her. Said spinster heard a spooky creak a couple hours ago, and comforted herself in realizing that a century-old brick house is as sturdy as anything.

Did I think that orals would (thus far, anyway) turn out to be about being lonely, haunting a city I should have left long ago, not knowing how to explain why I’m still here, learning from what queer theorists have taught us about the limits of language? Of course not—but also yes, of course, how could I not? This is what the deconstructionists teach us, I think: the cutesy-clever wordplay that looks much less impressive than it did five or six or seven years ago, that sets me nodding off in the Upper Reading Room, isn’t really about that house of cards crumbling into nothing. Collapse the binaries and I don’t actually think you have neither. You have both. So Anne Lister can be a lesbian to a woman in 1990 who needs to know she’s not alone; and she can be a woman completely of her time whose terms are impossible to translate to another woman, not so different, yet for whom faithfulness to the past’s distance and incomprehensibility carries more personal meaning. And Oxford, odi et amo: the same place it was a hundred and fifty years ago, and yet entirely modern; I, the same person I was five and a bit years ago outside the Rad Cam, and yet changed utterly.

Aged 21, still new to Oxford.

Aged 21, still new to Oxford.

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