The reeducation of a queer theorist

Battling cancer, a nice male psychoanalyst and her own sexual demons, the diva of queer theory learned a new way of living.

Published September 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the 1980s, academia underwent many transformations. Among the most surprising was that literary studies became sexy: Through the lens of high theory, scholars began injecting libido into once dry and staid intellectual realms. It was in these heady, body-fixated years that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick came of age as the queen of queer theory. With her assertions that Henry James' fiction featured crypto-queers who longed to be fisted, or that masturbating girls lurked in Jane Austen's novels, Sedgwick became famous for her scandalous takes on classic literary works.

But in many ways Sedgwick, a soft-spoken, straight, married woman with no propensity for flesh-revealing costumes or public sexual drama, was an unlikely crusader in this intellectual sexual revolution. In fact, she embodied many of the stereotypes that have always shadowed scholars: She was a quiet, eminently bookish person who thrived within the conventional world of academia.

In other ways, however, Sedgwick was also a living example of the paradox that the new theoreticians of sex were grappling with. What was the relationship between life and theory? Were theorists meant to actually represent the ideas they gave voice to, or was this an utterly intellectual undertaking divorced from bodily ramifications? In "Epistemology of the Closet," Sedgwick implied that in some sense she did need to explain how her life informed her ideas. In explanation for the deep identification with gay men that obviously charged her work, she explained that she was a woman, a fat woman, a childless woman with no interest in children, a Jew and "a sexual pervert." The outsider stuff -- woman, overweight, childless, Jewish -- was all well and good, but it was in taking on the mantle of the "sexual pervert" that she aligned herself with gay men most conspicuously. But what exactly did it mean?

Sedgwick's new book, "A Dialogue on Love," further explores the complex relationship between theory and lived experience. The book chronicles the psychotherapy that helped put Sedgwick's emotional life back together after breast cancer and depression. It also reveals that Sedgwick's so-called sexual perversity was a relatively tame beast. She indulged in a private, baroque fantasy life, but flesh-and-blood sexual encounters, she confesses to her therapist, had never held out that much appeal.

"As far as 'having sex' goes, things couldn't possibly be more hygienic or routinized for me," she writes. "When I do it, it's vanilla sex, on a weekly basis, in the missionary position, in daylight, immediately after a shower, with one person of the so-called opposite sex, to whom I've been legally married for almost a quarter of a century."

This is pretty damning stuff from the scholar conservative critics have long painted as a sex-addled mangler of literature. In his jerky article last November in the New Republic, in which he decried "the sexualization of everything" by academics, Lee Siegel railed against Sedgwick as a threat not just to literature but to society itself. "The result of Sedgwick's inestimable influence has been, among her followers -- all of whom are college teachers or will someday be college teachers -- a deadness, not just to beauty and fineness of perception and fragile inner life, but also to human suffering."

It's true that many of Sedgwick's followers have used her ideas and techniques in ham-handed ways. They undertook her signature technique of "queering" literary works (showing how texts encode meanings that work against the sexually circumscribed, homophobic culture in which they were written) with a vengeance, creating some pretty horrendous scholarship in the process. But it's just as silly to blame Stephen Greenblatt for the endless pages of mechanistic new historicism that came in his wake; you can't hold pioneers responsible for all the foibles of their imitators.

Siegel's tirade against Sedgwick also epitomized many conservatives' misunderstanding of the complexities that link theory and life. As even a fledgling theorist would tell Siegel (if he asked), theory never professes to explain literary texts. In a sense, a theoretical work is a literary text of it own. It exists at a slanted angle to life. And by the same token, theorists need not explain their ideas in terms of their own personal lives.

But it's precisely this personal, confessional reckoning that Sedgwick undertakes in "A Dialogue on Love." For Sedgwick to decide to make this move inward, she had to first arrive in a dark place -- the depression she'd battled on and off since childhood, which returned with a vengeance after her chemotherapy. Psychotherapy hadn't helped in the past, but this time she thought it might. Taking a different tack, she for the first time chose a male therapist, Shannon Van Wey. "If I can fit the pieces of this self back together at all," she explains to Van Wey during an early session, "I don't want them to be the way they were." She resolved to approach her sexuality not in its theoretical and rhetorical and cultural possibilities but as a troubling, long-stymied part of her own life. "It's been so much easier just to put other people's queer sexuality in place of my own," she writes.

When I met Sedgwick last month to talk about "A Dialogue on Love," she appeared to have recovered from her illness, though sadly, as she reveals in the book, the cancer has metastasized and is being called incurable. She's still a large woman, but there's a lightness about her; she has a gentle, gliding manner and smooth, pale skin. True to the theme of her book -- that over time, she was able with her therapist's help to remodel her painful emotional life -- she comes across as a happy person. And if cancer was what originally triggered the episode of depression that sent her to Van Wey's office, she also credits her terminal diagnosis with some of her current peacefulness. "It concentrates your mind on the tremendous interest of being alive," she told me. "It's been very grounding to know where the exit sign is."

In writing her book, she maintains that she worked hard to be less academic, less specialized in her writing. "I really wanted 'A Dialogue on Love' to be engaging to non-academic, literate people," she explained. Her voice in the book is loose, if still cerebral, and she plays around with style, using a hybrid Japanese literary form called haibun in which the writing flows between haiku and prose. The prose sections, too, alternate between Sedgwick's memories and Van Wey's actual notes of the therapy sessions, rendered all in small-capital letters, giving the whole thing a jazzy, dexterous feel.

True to its title, the book is a love story of sorts between Sedgwick and her psychotherapist. In a drama of two comically, touchingly mismatched lovers, Sedgwick plays the neurotic, self-protective, over-intellectualizing academic with some shame-filled sexual secrets, while Van Wey is the sunny-tempered, uncompetitive, unself-conscious Midwestern psychologist who doesn't "vibrate to the chord of S/M practically at all." Characteristically presumptuous about her queer understanding of sexuality, Sedgwick expresses shock at this revelation: "I feel as if he'd casually remarked that he doesn't breathe oxygen."

The constant need to assert and prove your intellectual worth is one of the most soul-killing features of academic life, and the pre-therapy Sedgwick was a classic victim of it. She bolsters her defenses by constantly questioning Van Wey's intelligence. "Shannon's never done anything in his life that I would count as thinking," she fumes to herself after one session. As the book progresses, however, Van Wey breaks through Sedgwick's anxious habit of intellectual one-upmanship. The fact that he remains unimpressed with her intellectual pyrotechnics finally shatters her solipsistic shield. "I try and try but never succeed in getting Shannon interested in genius -- or even in 'brilliance,'" she writes. "The furthest he'll go, in his blandness, is describing someone as 'really bright.'"

Being privy to Van Wey's notes as we read the book, we can see that not only is he not dumb, he is definitely up to the task of analyzing Eve Sedgwick. Slowly, she realizes that her poses of intellectual superiority with Van Wey are just another part of her elaborate barricade against life. The back-and-forth between Sedgwick's elegant, playful writing and Van Wey's devastatingly concise commentary plays like a tennis match between two well-matched players with radically different styles:

At one point I marvel, looking back, "But it seemed like such a seamless and inexorable braid of fatal inferences!"

He responds with high interest: "I feel like, 'Gee, we don't have one of those at our house, how does it work?'"

According to Sedgwick, it was just this kind of interchange that fueled her emotional re-education. She came to see that the quickness of her mind was actually holding back her progress, because she expected emotional change to be as easy to master as a new theory: "It's hard to recognize that your whole being, your soul doesn't move at the speed of your cognition," she told me. "That it could take you a year to really know something that you intellectually believe in a second." She learned "how not to feel ashamed of the amount of time things take, or the recalcitrance of emotional or personal change."

Approaching her sexual self remained Sedgwick's most thorny endeavor -- especially after her mastectomy and chemotherapy. Despite her own ability to theorize the galaxy, she clung to a surprisingly rigid view of her sexuality as something that existed whole cloth, rather than something that might be improvised or reinvented.

When Sedgwick and Van Wey first begin talking about her blocked sexual imagination, she gets furious at his suggestion that she watch some porn videos. "... As if I could phone Sears, Roebuck and order myself new fantasies from the catalogue."

For her, sex was split in two. There was the hygienic "vanilla" sex with her husband, during which "I have orgasms and it feels good, but it's not what I think of as sexual." Then there was the fantasy world that she'd masturbated to since childhood, which she describes in an aptly stark haiku: "Violence and pain / Humiliation. Torture. / Rape, systematic." Her fantasies had institutional settings, schools, prisons, waiting rooms, undressing rooms, quasi-medical "procedures" to be submitted to. Bravely, she tells Van Wey that "there's not one single thing about them that I'm not ashamed of -- as soon as I step outside of their own, proprietary space. There, I love them." Together they construct a catalogue of these sexual scenarios in all their excruciating, banal detail. As she recounts and reclaims these fantasies, something loosens in her, and she even starts to feel differently in her body:

"Meanwhile, outside/around therapy, I've been enjoying a sensual reality and sense of possibility that I can't remember when I've felt before. I mean, of the reality of my own body. Which seems both the most natural thing in the world, and quite unaccountable when I think of the actual content of these fantasies."

As courageous as this confessional may be, this passage is about as specific as Sedgwick gets about her sexual transformation. It will probably strike most readers as far from earthshaking. Even at the end of the book, she still seems uncomfortable with sexual desire and with herself as sexually desiring. She reflexively channels sexual energy into other things -- her writing, her friendships, her deepening love for her therapist -- as if she's most at home with sexually inflected rather than unmediated sexual pleasures. But in a way the very modesty of Sedgwick's sexual awakening speaks to the strange power of her intellectual vision. Far from the narcissism gay scholars are often accused of, her work did not theorize the world to prop up her own identity. Rather, she invented a new world in which even she was a stranger. Blake-like, she created her own system, and she lived there comfortably -- for a while.

After plumbing the depths of her own psyche, after losing a breast and coming to terms with her death, what will Sedgwick do next? Can she ever return to the exalted and distanced world of theory? Can she continue to write in the stylized prose of the professional thinker? At the moment, conscious that she may have little time left, she has devoted herself to a whole new assortment of humbling physical and emotional endeavors. She dyes and weaves fabric; she writes an advice column for MAMM, the magazine for women with breast cancer. And she stays in touch with Van Wey by phone, for now just as friends. "But as I'm envisioning it," she says, "as this illness sort of closes down, I probably will want to have an ongoing relationship I can turn to for therapy. So I feel as if we're also keeping a space open for that."

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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