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What Did Eve Do?

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

This is a piece I wrote a few years ago, but I was reading Erin Wunker’s timely Notes from a Feminist Killjoy and it made me think about Eve. So here is an untimely post, a haunting that continues to inform my everyday practices.

Not “what did she mean to me?” or “how do we understand her?” but, taking my cue from her persistent question to us as she taught, “what does this text do?” what did Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick do? What does she still do, to/with me?

I had co-supervisors, Eve and a rigorous theoretical Latin Americanist. After my defence, he commented on how I had characterised their roles in my acknowledgements: him I thanked for his opposition, for his insistence on a kind of relentless drive to knowledge, whereas her I thanked for her attentive listening and close reading. I had dichotomized them in ways that did both an injustice, fitting them into some kind of gendered roles that hardly fit either one. Both of them excited me, taking classes with each was dizzingly intellectual, and I wanted to find a thinking, writing, and reading practice that was both affective like Eve’s and theoretical like his. Again, false distinctions that appealed to my dogmatic grad student mind. In some ways, I shut Eve out in case she was going to shut me out. She had left Duke by the time I started writing the dissertation, and her obvious pleasure in the text seemed too easy compared to his ruthless insistence on content more than form. And he was more present, his support was more tangible, and his career path more tenable (who was actually ever going to get a job being a Victorianist?).

I was so young, so fiercely normalizing. My feminism was straight, my Marxism dogmatic. I wasn’t stupid, and I knew that writing and reading were vital to any kind of understanding I was ever going to have about the world and my actions. But I just couldn’t believe that something that was based most emphatically on the inordinate pleasure I got out of it could really be my life’s work. Plus, I liked thinking through questions of identity and belonging in more abstract terms, and it seemed that as long as I could continue to write, I didn’t need to love the actual texts with which I worked.

In some ways I feel like Eve had such a rich interiority, a fierceness of thought because of the awkwardness that she had in her body. My body worked so well compared to hers. I remember complaining to her how I felt that I slept too much, that I would do more work if I just slept less. I was such a figure of health and youthful vigour, spending my days lifting weights, eating vegetarian food, having heterosexual sex, sleeping soundly every night. Eve, having already battled sickness, struggling with the insomnia that went hand in hand with her depression, told me how sleep was such a productive space, necessary for thinking through ideas.

I’m not so sure. I think some of us actually think less, or at least less productively than others. Eve used her multiple identifications with others as this incredibly creative and fertile space in which to think through, to write, to engage. She was voracious and her best thinking happened in that relational excitement that she gained most from gay men, but also from queers of all genders and types. I wasn’t one of her friends, though I had a quiet kind of admiration that kept me close to her, taking classes, talking, going to her house. Reading her Dialogue on Love or “White Glasses” is a very familiar but also strangely uncanny experience, as if I’m being given the pieces that were missing in my understanding of what was going on with her, what I couldn’t connect with.

Back then, I didn’t want to identify in anyway as queer, I ridiculed those who lived in straight relationships but clustered around her, with their tortuous identifications and postures and gestures. I saw it as a farce, whereas now I think about the kinds of pain that we were all in then, riddled with insecurities and disconnection and fear, and wish I had been able to perform that not in the cocky self-assured disparaging way that I did, but in the more anxious, open way that I did when I was in class, faced with the melting identification I shared with Eve in the face of a novel. What did I fear, what threatened me in the relentlessly fierce and shy soft-spoken fat woman, who was so odd, so timid and yet so insistent on expressing her pleasure?

Shortly after Eve’s death, I wrote to Carol Mavor for the first time in years: “I’m reading your book right now on Reading Boyishly and it’s touching something in me that is really ready for it. It’s just been a lot of years of making myself into a Latin Americanist, of developing passions about 19th c political prose and bad romantic novels. And recently it’s feeling so alien I can’t imagine why I did it, when I loved those Victorian novels and stories and photographs and their affect. I loved your class, the ways that it allowed me new objects, new modes of scrutiny, new images. Now, post tenure and in psychoanalysis, I’m coming back to those fragmented pieces, unravelling the skein that has bound me, and doing something more intimate. In my teaching, I’m happy because my students and I read Proust and George Eliot and Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. But I’ve forgotten how to write passionately, and am trying to find a voice that is less academic, less comfortable in its knowledge. Your book reminds me how much we all write ourselves, just some of us admit it and embrace it….You reference me in your footnotes and say that I’m ‘all grown up now.’ Not something I’ve ever aspired to, but it did happen. But now needing to undo some of its shaping, allow the tendrils to twine themselves around whatever they need to be warmed by the sun and blossom.”

In Dialogue on Love, Eve recounts how it’s not till she and her brother are adults that they come to understand that “certain processes take actual time.” (28) The process of my understanding what Eve does to me has taken twenty years. Her presence in my teaching, my writing, my reading, my desire. Her living a life in which love and work were impossible to separate. At least I can revel, as a slow learner, in the freshness of my feeling and knowing (28).

In grad school, I only allowed Eve into certain aspects of my life, though she drew few distinctions between private and public, between teaching and friendship. It was my discomfort, my need for those boundaries, that kept me out of her inner circle. It’s okay, it’s what it was. But I now know something more about an expansiveness that comes from an openness and desire for many kinds of relationships and interactions, not just of a closed and safe circle. I now cherish that “spreading field of intimacy where love just grows wild” (214). Just as when you become a teacher you realize that every time you, as a student, yawned or wrote a note to your friend, your teacher noticed it, I now know that as a professor, I need and love and identify with so many of my students, those who devote themselves to me as much as those who do their own work and trust I will read it well. Oh, and then there are some who are curious about me but don’t really know what I’m up to and why I want to read and think about texts that don’t interest them at all. But to engage in a teaching and talking and listening that is intimate and eager and interested, knowing that its effects may take years to manifest, these are some of the ways that Eve’s praxis resonates in me. This is how Eve continues to do.

2 Comments

  1. Katie says:

    Lovely, and poignant, and much resonates–making myself into a 19thc Americanist, there were some real pleasures, and some really excruciating moments. And I saw myself in that tortured circle, being endlessly harassed for my relationship with a man, even as I myself was bewildered by it, yet saw it as the extension of Eve’s work. She fiercely defended me, it turns out. But that we, or them, of that circle were often totally insufferable in all kinds of cringe-worthy and worse ways. So I’ve got my own set of regrets and missed opportunities. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks for this, Katie. Many of the people I have talked to from those Duke days share the same sense of missed opportunities. There were many good and powerful things in our relationships with each other, whether in classes, or at parties at Eve and Michael’s, or dancing with each other. But there was volatility, and anxiety. I still remember maybe 10 years later, being at a party at MLA with José Munoz, and him apologizing to me for how sometimes cruel he had been towards us all. We talked of his unhappiness, and Brian’s death. And also of all the excitement and how much we learned, how much we were filled with ideas and life-changing ways of understanding and being.

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