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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.
The great theme of Bersani’s work—from his early writing on Flaubert and Proust in the 1950s to his more outwardly polemical work in queer studies in the 1990s—is likely that pleasure is serious business. It requires neither justification nor redemption by normative and heteronormative categories of value. Discourses around art, Bersani argues in The Culture of Redemption, too frequently turn upon “legitimizing plots” that are laid down as the ground zero for artistic reception and misread art’s alternative ethical capacities. The pleasures of creation and consumption are not so clean, and such encounters are not always palliative and do not always feel good. We don’t turn to a writer like Samuel Beckett for daily affirmations (however much “fail better,” from Beckett’s 1983 novella Worstward Ho!, has been assimilated as a cozy maxim).
This dialectic between artworks and people—between one’s lived experience and how one finds it reflected or distorted in art and literature—was a central concern in Bersani’s writing as early as the late 1950s, when he began publishing articles on French literature. In his first book, Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and Art (1965), Bersani introduced a key refrain of his work, what literary scholar Malcolm Bowie calls Bersani’s “notion of an otherness that is internal to individual selfhood.” In Bersani’s writing on Proust, he explores the idea that self and other are mutually shaping, and reflects on how this informs the sexual politics of intimate relationships, in which we find ourselves reflected back by the strange yet intimate glance of another person. By 1974 he had distilled this into a sort of koan for the opening line of an article about Madame Bovary: “Romantic love has been one of our most effective myths for making sense out of our sensations.”
From the beginning, then, Bersani’s work had much to say about desire. Like those of art, sexual pleasures are complex and ambivalent. Sexuality, as he puts it in The Culture of Redemption, is a “socially dysfunctional” force that “brings people together only to plunge them into a self-shattering and solipsistic jouissance that drives them apart.” At the same time, though, it offers protection against our need “to disguise and to exercise the tyranny of the self in the prestigious form of legitimate cultural authority.”
For a thinker who is regularly labeled a queer theorist—though he rejected the term “queer”—it may surprise some readers that these earlier works focus on heterosexual desire in the great love plots of French literature, from the plight of Emma Bovary to the torturous dynamic between Proust’s Marcel and Albertine. Indeed, Bersani would later dig in about this, writing, against critics who sought gay undertones in À la recherche du temps perdu, that Proust was a “novelist of heterosexual—or at least heteroized—love.” Proust, in his view, understood love as something that arose from the polar attraction of two different genders, whereas Bersani was interested in sameness, which he claimed to be the hallmark of homosexual desire.
It wasn’t until the 1987 publication of “Is the Rectum a Grave?” that Bersani would fully engage with the themes of gay studies. Gay male sexuality, as Bersani defined it in the essay, is particularly resistant to “legitimizing plots,” although it remains vulnerable to such legitimization at times of crisis. While the AIDS epidemic prompted many in the gay male community to rethink sexual behaviors in terms of risk and responsibility, Bersani argued that sex itself needed to be rethought in such a way that did not allow it to be legitimized or “pastoralized” by comforting narratives of sex as liberation. Sex was instead, for Bersani, fundamentally an act of the self being broken open.
The gay bathhouse, that promiscuous idyll of the pre-AIDS 1970s, offered Bersani a prime example for the framing of sex as a mode of communitarian belonging. “I do not,” he wrote, “find it helpful to suggest” that such gay cruising spaces created (and here he quotes critic Dennis Altman) “a sort of Whitmanesque democracy,” a sexual utopia where hierarchies disappeared. “Anyone who has ever spent one night in a gay bathhouse,” he continued, “knows that it is (or was) one of the most ruthlessly ranked, hierarchized, and competitive environments imaginable. Your looks, muscles, hair distribution, size of cock, and shape of ass determined exactly how happy you were going to be during those few hours.” Moving away from the material conditions of the bathhouse or the BDSM club as pseudo-redemptive spaces, Bersani argues for a theory of gay sexuality as a quasi-violent act of self-shattering, in which the gay male subject is simultaneously split apart, feminized, and reconstituted.
Bersani’s analysis of homosexuality as an oppositional identity was extended in his 1996 book Homos. In it, he launched a critique against the burgeoning field of queer theory—despite (or perhaps because) of the fact that many situated its origins in the early critical responses to AIDS that included his essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” The emergence of the term “queer” signaled, for Bersani, a deconstruction pushed too far. If “these suspicions of identity are necessary,” he wrote, “they are not necessarily liberating,” and Bersani bemoaned the way that certain gay men and lesbians had “nearly disappeared into their sophisticated awareness of how they have been constructed as gay men and lesbians.”
Bersani also felt that “queer” emphasized “political rather than erotic tendencies,” and that this de-gayed gayness by drawing attention away from sex and sexual practices. Through analyses of figures including Michel Foucault and Jean Genet, Bersani identified gay desire and gay sex, in all their destructive or even abject qualities, as effecting a radical eroticization of sameness, distinct from heterosexuality’s fixation upon difference. This, he felt, signaled a different way of being in the world. Proust’s “somber glamorizing” of desire, Bersani noted in the 2002 essay on cruising, is “grounded in irreducible opposition” between heterosexual subjects; it “masochistically celebrates difference as the very condition of desire, thus renouncing the privilege his homosexuality might have afforded him of recognizing, and loving, himself in an hospitably familiar otherness.”
Bersani’s notion of sameness as a tenet of radical gayness was rooted in the psychoanalytic belief that the gay subject desires to find replications of himself through others. He argued that gay male sexuality’s distinctive and untapped potential offered a way beyond assimilationist politics, for which same-sex marriage acted as a beacon of progress and respectability. But many critics dismissed the argument as myopic and retrograde. “Behind his rhetoric of radical chic,” wrote Stephen P. Knadler in a review of the book, “Bersani asks gay studies to return to an Eisenhower-era, radically hygienic radicalism” that rejected contemporary celebrations of diversity in its numerous forms. Peggy Phelan noted how Bersani’s “several intelligences” were “deeply incompatible”; as a reader of texts, he was “generous, sophisticated, utterly persuasive,” but as a reader of “this political moment”—flush with debates around queer studies, gender studies, and multiculturalism—he was “muddled, arrogant, ethically small.” That Homos was strongly inclined against the political orthodoxies of its day was an important part of its curious power. But for critics like Knadler, this read as a kind of posturing, evidence that both “the radical left and right tend to situate themselves as pariahs of the mainstream social order,” with Bersani as the then-sixty-five-year-old rebel bringing sex back to sexuality studies while ignoring more inclusive paradigms.
Fortunately, the legacy of Homos has not solely been defined by these blind spots and controversies. Together with “Is the Rectum a Grave?” it offers the clearest expression of Bersani’s “anti-relational” thesis, his espousal of the antisocial and anti-communitarian aspects of desire and sexuality, in direct opposition to more optimistic narratives of affinity or fraternity. In the essay on cruising, Bersani observes that the “danger” associated with gay cruising “is not that it reduces relations to promiscuity sex, but rather that the promiscuity may stop. Few things are more difficult than to block our interest in others, to prevent our connection to them from degenerating into a ‘relationship.’”
If Bersani’s bold rewiring of the terms and values of intimacy recalls, as Knadler has it, a nostalgia for modes of promiscuity that are implicitly coded as white, gay, and male, the conceptual implications of his anti-relational analyses have been widely debated, and thus widely influential, in queer studies. For one, Bersani’s anti-relational orientation has anticipated work by other figures in the field. “Many critics have followed Bersani’s antirelational turn,” wrote queer Cuban American critic and performance studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz, “but arguably none as successfully as Lee Edelman in his book No Future.” Edelman’s No Future (2004) offers a theory of queer life that rejects the futurism of the straight world, namely its incessant inclination toward marriage, domesticity and the ‘kid stuff’ of reproduction and child-rearing. In turn, Edelman suggests a rejection of futurity altogether, and proposes a vision of queer life that embraces, rather than renounces, the pull of the death drive, that dual capacity for pleasure and destruction that has no use for the dominant social order and its progress narratives. The rhetorical bombast of Edelman’s divisive book recalls Bersani’s earlier theses on queer negativity and their rejection of the idea that queer identity can, or should, be made edifying.
In Muñoz’s own work, the anti-relational foundations laid by Bersani provide a point of contrast. In his influential 2009 book Cruising Utopia, which situates queerness as a utopia, a “warm horizon imbued with potentiality,” Muñoz sets up his stall as an “anti-anti-relational” thinker. Although he finds Edelman’s book an impressive and even inspiring work of argument, Muñoz’s project is a hopeful one, a commitment to the capacity to imagine the world otherwise. Thus Muñoz turns on its head the notion that hope is naïve whereas negativity is rigorous. On the contrary, “antirelational approaches to queer theory,” he writes, are “romances of the negative,” voiced by theorists who too readily see intersectionality as a “contamination” that taints “the purity of sexuality as a singular trope of difference.” Although Muñoz admires Bersani’s “problematizing” of “any simplistic, sentimental understanding of the gay community,” he is suspicious of the political limits of such a project, in particular its limited focus on questions of race.
Bersani’s accounts of power and its encoding in our everyday lives have also been extended by others. Anne Anlin Cheng, professor of English at Princeton and a former student of Bersani’s, has noted in an online conversation about his legacy, “Leo wasn’t interested in the question of race the way I was/am, but he understood in profound ways the socio-psycho dynamics of power,” such that “much of the way I think about the material afterlives of American racism is indebted to Leo’s ways of thinking: how the social speaks in the voice of the personal.” Cheng singles out Bersani’s work with Ulysse Dutoit on the paintings of Mark Rothko and the films of Alain Resnais as indicative of this thinking. Many of Rothko’s compositions, in their blurring of shapes and colors, seem to invite us into seeking representational forms, only to frustrate and disturb our desire for legibility. Similarly, a film such as Resnais’s 1956 documentary Nuit et brouillard may appear to stage the question of imitation—how can an artwork represent a historical phenomenon such as the Holocaust?—but muddies the waters by drawing attention to its own artifice and implicating its audience in the abhorrence of what is being represented. Bersani and Dutoit’s close readings of these aesthetic disturbances signal, Cheng notes, that “the work of resistance may resist its own capture, that there may be silent, alternative modes of survival and being for those caught in the catastrophes of history.”
Michael Snediker’s essay “Is the Rectangle in a Grave?” also looks to Bersani’s writing on Rothko, and parses both its sexual and aesthetic implications, the sense that “we might imagine some resonance not only between the bottom rectangle [of a Rothko painting] and the gay bottom [a central figure in ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’], but across Bersani’s investment in each.” Snediker’s essay thus similarly suggests that Bersani was at his most compelling when these dual investments were brought to bear upon one another; when he stayed close to the encounter between artwork and subject.
In summarizing the debates spurred by Bersani’s work, it is easy to overstate the theoretical binaries that divide queer theorists into camps. Each is vulnerable to burlesque—the enfants terribles, for whom queer life is always a matter of sex and death, versus the misty-eyed romantics, in thrall to the utopian gifts of the everyday. But neither possesses the natural monopoly on seriousness, on the one hand, or pleasure on the other.
Reading Bersani—although sometimes difficult and not without pain—is never a joyless experience. In his book on Jane Austen and style, D.A. Miller dedicates several pages of his introduction to Bersani’s mention, in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” of the old joke about going home with the “butch number” from the gay bar, expecting one thing, only to find he has the complete works of Austen on his bookshelf (and must, therefore, be a bottom). Miller’s close analysis of this joke, and Bersani’s use of it, is a fitting homage to a writer who moved easily between arch humor and high theory.
Such flashes of charisma, products of a style at once effortless and intensely honed, are central to Bersani’s entire project. They are, as he said of his own provocative opening lines, “pleasing, self-contained, inexplicable yet nonproblematic spectacles.” If the problems posed by such lines are not for the author himself to decide on, it is nonetheless this spectacular quality of Bersani’s work that is worth returning to—the purple prose of a critic seeing red, the momentary distraction of those “lovely” patches of blue.
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.
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