Archive for the ‘sex’ Category

Start With This

March 11, 2008

I have often wondered what would have happened if Queer Theory had started with Moby Dick instead of “Billy Budd.” I am referring to Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, which is about how important the homo/hetero binary has always been to Western culture; to what counts as knowledge; to the way in writers use marginal comments to highlight the non-dit that is pretty much an open secret.

As a novel, Moby Dick is a spectacular failure. It’s still one of my favorite things to read. It has none of the subtlety of “Billy Bud,” which is about where loneliness and sexuality intersect. Was Sedgwick’s decision to focus on what goes on “between-the-lines” an effort to show what close-reading can pull out? Was her book a gambit towards critical virtuosity? Were critics of the era (whom she has called “paranoid” elsewhere), simply uninterested in blatantly utopian and sexual passages, such as the following from the chapter “Squeeze of the Hand”:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, –Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!

My impressions of the critical world are really defined by my experience of graduate school. When I was a student (please note that it was a very conservative department where I was, for most of the time, the only openly gay male in the department — among either faculty or students … I know! who ever heard of a straight English professor? There was one old gay guy, but apparently he wasn’t very “out” since another prof — one who physically resembled Krusty the Clown — always insisted he and his boyfriend were “bachelors”), I felt like Queer Theory had gained some acceptance inasmuch that it allowed critics to destabilize established notions of sexual normativity. But Sedgwick’s observations were often misused as a relativistic bludgeon against anyone who ever noticed any sex going on in the books. It didn’t help that my Tub of Love, a leading lesbian literary critic, wrote a whole book about lesbianism where no sex, just barometers, appeared. Sure, there are some people who write about “flapping vaginas” in Eighteenth Century literature, and that kind of thing was made possible with a “work-around” Queer Theory. Of the holy trinity, Leo Bersani, Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler, only Bersani was ever willing to discuss sex; including a great moment on the epistemology of rimming.

Still, this didn’t really translate well to the classroom where all anyone knew about homosexuality was the closet. I was practically lynched once for suggesting that maybe, maybe, when Julian of Norwich was rubbing her holy hazel nut and experiencing the rapture something masturbatory might be going on. OK. OK. That’s not quite true. I just flat out said “the hazel nut is her clitoris,” which it was! But I thought that everyone in the room was going to kill me. Newsflash: People did actually masturbate before the 1960s (though, during senior year in high school, I had to explain to our valedictorian that Woman could, indeed, masturbate. She didn’t believe me, or at least pretended not to). Maybe if we weren’t always negotiating these awkward work-arounds to make sexuality and sex legitimate topics of conversation in the collegiate classroom, people might see that as a possibly interesting start to the conversation, not end it.

Obviously, one of the reasons people feared talking about sex was because they were afraid of being pigeon-holed as someone who had to work on sexuality. I think people were surprised that my dissertation topic was more focused on political economy than sex, as if knowing what a clitoris is makes me incapable of writing about anything else. Having a sexuality, being able to talk about sex and identity, should contribute to making one cosmopolitan, not provincial. I eventually learned that if one wanted to have a remotely sane discussion of sex, just go to the Anthro Department and talk with them and let the Literature people stay in their bubble.

I like Melville. Not everything he wrote was pure sublimation. It would be nice if that entered the discussion occasionally. I think it’s actually a more difficult book to write about because it’s actually fun (Melville is also being extremely facetious in that passage, if you hadn’t noticed, but Utopian all the same).