Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Beacon Press ($25)
by Jennie Chu
In this memoir of her treatment for depression following recovery from breast cancer, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick sets out to explore the poetics of therapy; in the process, the author, one of the founders of queer studies, examines her own sexuality—a topic she has heretofore been reticent about. Her chosen medium is a kind of "texture book" in which diary entries are interwoven with haiku, excerpts from her therapist's notes, and threads of dialogue between therapist and patient. Why this peculiar genre? "A texture book wouldn't need to have a first person at all, any more than weaving itself does," she explains. A Dialogue on Love, then, is meant as a complex fabric in which two different perspectives (that of Shannon, the therapist, and of Eve, the patient) become mingled in an interpersonal braid that twists and complicates the division between first person and second.
Despite the promise of its interpersonal scheme, there remains something unavoidably, self-centered about the whole book. Shannon's voice is always subservient to Sedgwick's needs; his "first person" is never really more than a therapeutic "second person" for Eve to talk to. But the book's self-centeredness has an even profounder basis. Simply to publish a memoir of one's own psychotherapy requires grandiosity of a certain kind—grandiosity closely linked to the sort of impulsive exhibitionism that drives much of confessional poetry. Sedgwick lets the reader in on some of her most private thoughts and experiences: her many bizarre, elaborate dreams ("Fascist takeover by the faculty committee organized to choose the Anglican martyr for the annual celebration"); her weird incestuous tendencies ("I am pathetically in love with my mother"); her longstanding obsession with masturbation ("from as far back into childhood as I can remember, I was somebody who, given the opportunity, would spend hours and hours a day in my bedroom masturbating"); her sex life with her husband Hal ("When I do it, it's vanilla sex, on a weekly basis, in the missionary position, in daylight, immediately after a shower"); even erotic daydreams involving her therapist ("fantasy about taking [his] socked foot and masturbating with it"). The result of so many disclosures is not exactly a tone of intimacy, nor is it altogether off-putting: if anything, the reader feels perplexed by the author's motivation—or is it compulsion?—to put affairs of so confidential a nature on such public display. The disclosures might be better understood if they served to elucidate Sedgwick's academic writing on sexuality, yet they have no discernible bearing on the politics of queer identity or the oppression of homosexuals. This absence of any meaningful connection between Sedgwick's work on gay studies and her own sexuality is never really examined in the book, and it only makes her erotic revelations all the more puzzling.
Sedgwick's style is as ostentatious as her confessionalism. She has a reckless tendency to mix abstractions with words that are almost cartoonish in their wacky sensuousness and puerile tone: "such wonder, such cheerful eagerness, such hilarious arias of uncertain agency, never feature in the S/M fantasies of my waking sexuality"; "Shannon's sunny, resilient, lightly slobbish ways are great in this kind of fine-honed high-hysterical crunch"; "there's some fun in being able to say all my meanest things to him, only slightly cloaked in the sad severity of free indirect discourse." The gaudy pageantry of Sedgwick's prose often diverts the reader's attention from the real issues at stake, much as it often diverts the reader's attention from the ideas in her scholarly work: it is difficult to get a sense of the true Eve Sedgwick. But the book hints at one point that Sedgwick's real voice has become distorted by a routine of psychological ventriloquism perfected over the years. "You articulate quite an elaborate inner space, full of all kinds of voices," she tells her therapist. "Not to say the voices don't come from anywhere, they do—but they don't come /directly/ from anywhere. There's a lot of time and echoey, experimental space for them to take on a life of their own." Here is a strangely apt description both of Sedgwick's idiom and of the artifice that has come to fill in for her self: elaborate, echoey, experimental, full of all kinds of voices that don't come /directly/ from anywhere but have weirdly taken on a life of their own.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999