Leo Bersani: Contrarian Critic of Gay DesireRoundup
tags: literature, LGBTQ history, criticism
Jack Parlett is author of The Poetics of Cruising: Queer Visual Culture from Whitman to Grindr and Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise, as well as the poetry chapbook Same Blue, Different You. He is a Junior Research Fellowship at University College, Oxford, where he teaches modern U.S. literature and literary theory. His essays have appeared in Poetry London, Lit Hub, and elsewhere.
Gay critic Leo Bersani (1931–2022) was known for his sharp opening sentences. In a career spanning eighteen books and numerous essays, the Berkeley professor, who passed away in February at the age of ninety, had quite a few zingers. The greatest is probably the first sentence of his best-known essay, a piece from 1987 on AIDS and gay male sexuality called “Is the Rectum a Grave?” It begins, “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.”
But in his final two books, Thoughts and Things (2015) and Receptive Bodies (2018), Bersani theorized more explicitly about introductions. He comes out again well-made prefaces, which he argues can spare us “from the work, what can be the pain of reading.” For Bersani, reading is meant to hurt a little or you’re not doing it right. A preface that preempts what you’ll take away, or paraphrases what is particular, can have, he suggests, a simplifying or even sanitizing effect. And it stands as cautionary advice for anyone seeking to grapple with a body of work like Bersani’s, whose career saw him tackle such diverse topics as Proust, monogamy, Assyrian palace reliefs, and bareback pornography.
Beginning at the end might be cheating here, or at least failing to heed Bersani’s call that we avoid summaries altogether. Though there may be no getting around it: formally speaking, an obituary, as a retrospective glance that behaves like a conclusion, is not so different from a preface. And a writer’s death often lends their late work a peculiar aura, as if it were something to be mined for elegiac wisdom, some awareness of its finality.
All the same, the last essay in Bersani’s last book practically invites being read in this way. “Staring,” from Receptive Bodies, meditates on the everyday act of staring into space, which Bersani considers an expression of the condition of “goneness,” the “unfathomable sadness of an irremediable unconnectedness.” Bersani follows these thoughts into a consideration of Bruno Dumont’s 1999 film Humanité, in which a police officer investigates a schoolgirl’s murder in rural France. The structure of “Staring” is typical of a late Bersani essay: a concept is introduced, unpacked psychoanalytically, and then illuminated (after an appearance by Freud or Foucault, perhaps) by its illustration in a film. But toward the end of the essay, Bersani connects the philosophical thinking of Dumont’s film to his own retrospective glances across his writing, noting how his recent tendency to self-quote “creates what may be the only free relation we can have to our past: the freedom of continually repeating its intrinsic inconclusiveness.” His provocative essay openers, he writes, “draw too much attention to themselves” and thus undercut “our impatient wish to move ahead toward de-problematizing conclusions.” A wrong beginning, done rightly, can foreclose endings that too readily soften the edges of conceptual, political, and material problems. In one scene of Humanité, Pharaon, the detective, finds refuge by looking at a painting in a museum, the “culturally sanctioned site of staring.” Bersani concludes that we should aspire to be more like this, allowing “our attention to be briefly arrested by lovely patches of blue.”
This tableau of distraction is at once typical of Bersani’s inclinations toward visual art and uncharacteristic in its seeming optimism. Is this the same thinker who, in his 1995 book The Culture of Redemption, argued against the supposedly healing powers of art? Earlier in “Staring,” he observes that the “world accommodates more than unfathomable atrocities; even within the grayish stretches of the insistently drab landscape of Flanders”—where Dumont’s film is set—“lovely patches of blue—of any color—can be noted.” But still, he warns, “we mustn’t make too much of them”; if blue is the warmest color, that doesn’t mean it will save us.
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