Orals Diary, 3; or, Reading and Writing Through Current Events

“It’s always open season on gay kids.” So begins Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” published as an article in 1991 and then, three years later, collected in her book of essays Tendencies, which I read yesterday and today in the Upper Reading Room, compulsively toggling back to social media every few pages in order to take in the tragedy that happened early Sunday morning in Orlando. Of those of the over 50 victims who have been identified, over half were under 30. For those of us who teach college—the late and lamented EKS, me, maybe you—many of them were the age of our students. The youngest was 19. Sedgwick writes in the introduction to Tendencies that she had young people, her students, in mind when she was writing. At the time she was writing some of these essays, surely some of her students were dying—certainly, she writes in Tendencies of a very close friend who did—and she was one of many people who put their queer shoulders to the wheel, putting pressure on the US government and the public to do something about a cruel fate that so many young people needn’t have met with.

At the time she was writing the essays in Tendencies, Sedgwick was also living through and with breast cancer, and so the book is very much about death and mortality and suffering, but it is about slow deaths, enervating ones, a drawn-out work of mourning (she writes a eulogy for a dying friend while he is still alive). Not so the young people shot down in cold blood on Sunday morning, whose families (and their chosen families, who, as Claire Potter has pointed out, are still being denied visitation rights, as they were 25 years ago) in some cases are still waiting to learn their fates. But the metaphor of “open season” that Sedgwick invokes (she’s talking about the pathologization of effeminate men) is not inappropriate for our age in which queer people out dancing, or college students, or seven-year-olds, can be shot like so many sitting ducks in places that should have been safe by weapons that those who have shot them in war zones believe should never be allowed in civilian contexts.

I didn’t expect that setting out to chronicle my orals reading would have any relevance to the outside world. Instead, I thought it would keep me going despite the frustration of having to spend so long doing something that doesn’t seem that useful. Evidently, I can be a better historian if I set aside these seven months to absorb lots of information, but in the moment it’s easy to look round at all the other people doing good and become angry at yourself for spending hours in a 400-year-old library reading yet another attempt to explain why X canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature is sexually transgressive. I was taught Sedgwick in college, in graduate school, have read her on my own, and have admired her work and, through the testimony of others, who she was as a person for many years—and yet, truth be told, going through her catalogue for orals can make it seem a little formulaic. Some other literary critic produced a reading of a canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature—or perhaps another cultural artifact—that was pathologizing, or too crudely-drawn and obvious, and Sedgwick sets out to put them right, with all the tricks available to a talented critic showing the text to have meanings both more and less transgressive, more and less complex, than the first reader could have seen. Several of the essays in Tendencies are like this: the one about Diderot, the one about Wilde, the one about Cather, the one about Austen, even the one about John Waters’ films. They do all relate elegantly back to her central, vital theme: an extension of her argument in Epistemology, which explored the connections and contradictions between homosexuality as a minority identity and as a more public and diffuse signifier; and between homosexuality as a transgression of gender norms and as an institution of gender separatism, but also moving further beyond “gay and lesbian” into this new world of the word “queer.” And so the characters in texts don’t just turn out to be gender-transgressive, or sexually unstable, in Sedgwick’s readings: they disrupt what “family” means (as in The Importance of Being Earnest, where uncles and aunts matter more than mothers and fathers); they refuse to be categorized into the homo/hetero binary (as in Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, for whom Sedgwick makes a case that I do not entirely follow but am happy to respect as having a sexual identity as an “onanist”). The historian, who is perfectly content with the finding that the Jane Austen heroines of this world did not understand sexuality, gender, and love the way we do today and does not seek to upset any further apple carts, sometimes gets a little lost around here. But Sedgwick has more to say when she lays the literature aside, as she does with many of the essays in Tendencies, and puts her critical acumen to work in other fields. She writes critically about her own identity, with wonderfully moving things to say about her identity as a fat woman, her identification with gay men, the love-relationships of her life. Adding the chapters together, it’s possible to see how the literary reading might have helped her to read the text of her own life.

I can’t imagine this was easy. Because it’s a special, emotional, tragic occasion, I’ll tell you why. I had a friend in college who was sometimes very reserved, but put that reservation to good use watching and understanding the lives of the people around her. Once at night when some of us were drinking tea in her room, she suddenly turned to me and said, “Emily, why do you want so much to be a gay man?” I stumbled over an answer, not sure how to provide one while also denying the presence of the question. I recall others in the room remarking that it was a weird, and maybe a rude, thing to say. But it has weighed on me for years, because obviously it spoke something of the truth. As I have gotten to know Sedgwick through her writing, it is a great relief to know that—like countless queer people who found community through literature where they couldn’t among the living—I am not the only woman who has questioned her commitments to her feminist politics because of her deep emotional investment in communities of men, nor the only one who has sought to live out queerness despite what would seem very much to be unavoidable cross-gender erotic and affective commitments. I am grateful to Sedgwick for having such an unconventional critical style, with so much of herself in it, because if it weren’t for her writing I might not have known that it is okay and honest and ethical to have the inclinations that I do, couldn’t have seen someone else state them so matter-of-factly, and then work to create a larger space in which any kind of affective position that doesn’t fit into the categories available to us might be articulated.

What is the point of reading books in a 400-year-old library while the world burns around us? Some, after all, believe that those of us who find ourselves reading books at times like this are unredeemable, and advocate the violent destruction of the institutions in which it is possible for us to read them. They can rest in the comfort of their unbesmirched leftist politics, pure as the driven snow, while it is left for those of us who still read in buildings named after slaveholders to wrestle with our consciences. Wrestle we must, I think: it is dangerous to assume we are right that we are not doing harm to our students by making them confront new ideas they might find troubling; dangerous for us to assume that the world will be all right without us, or with only the odd modest donation to a cause or vote for a Democratic candidate; dangerous if we pass up the opportunity to bend the talents with which advantages and good fortune have bestowed us to some more urgent, and more life-saving, purpose. Yes, teachers do good, but that rings hollow on days when we have to remember that there are not a few teachers in recent years who have done the most good not by words and knowledge but simply by shielding their students from an unstable man wielding an assault rifle.

I think that we can take some comfort from the fact that all through the AIDS crisis, through which tens of thousands of queer and other vulnerable people in my country perished in part due to the government’s slowness to come to the assistance of some of the most marginalized and persecuted members of society, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick kept writing. She kept writing through her own illness, celebrating even when she herself was very ill the lives of her ill gay male friends. And she wasn’t just writing work with an obviously political or emotional purpose: Tendencies allows us to see that even MLA papers with provocative titles about the inner workings of classic novels, or about the minutiae of the methodology of the field of queer studies that she helped to found, add up to a larger picture of a corpus (a body, a body of work) devoted to changing the way people think.

A somewhat fainter, but really quite present, political backdrop to Sedgwick’s writing in this period is the canon wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As LD Burnett has noted, in this respect as well we are living through a remarkable echo of 25 years ago (weirdly, I was born a little more than 25 years ago), as older and more conservative college teachers and members of the public greet with mystery and hostility the wishes of the young to pursue a course of study whose rationale they can comprehend. In the early pages of Tendencies, Sedgwick has the best possible reaction to such views:

In the very first of the big “political correctness” scare pieces in the mainstream press, Newsweek pontificated that under the reign of multiculturalism in colleges, “it would not be enough for a student to refrain from insulting homosexuals…. He or she would be expected to… study their literature and culture alongside that of Plato, Shakespeare, and Locke.” Alongside? Read any Sonnets lately? You dip into the Phaedrus often? (Tendencies, 20)

What we do with canonical texts, we weirdos who work with them to ends other than to appreciate them (or at least, not only to appreciate them), is to show our students how to look at them from perspective after perspective until the student finds just the lens that will give her strength. For one student the Phaedrus is the epitome of classical Greek prose; for another, it is a key to the philosophy of writing and poetics; for another, it proves that another civilization long ago gave public sanction to his desires; for another, it is evidence of a rigidly hierarchical, sexist and class-bound society which modern democracies should have more sense than to revere. Or, I think Sedgwick helps us to understand, all these things can be true at once. And for that reason, turning one’s mind away from Twitter and towards such study is a moral path, perhaps even (not to get too grandiose, but) a salvific one, one that can help us know what to do when we are confronted with pain.

Don’t be stupid or self-absorbed. If you are American, contact your elected representatives and urge them to support universal background checks and an assault rifle ban. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me and for all the other teachers who lose sleep at night wondering if it will be our classrooms next. Do it for the queer Americans who have spent the twentieth and twenty-first centuries dealing with enough shit. And then take up your Plato or your Auden, kneel in prayer or go out dancing, and teach your children (for they’re your children even if you only have them fifty minutes a week in a discussion section) well.

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One thought on “Orals Diary, 3; or, Reading and Writing Through Current Events

  1. Pingback: What We’re Reading: June 11th-17th | JHIBlog

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