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Reviewed by:
  • Gender, Sexuality, and Desire in T. S. Eliot
  • Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Gender, Sexuality, and Desire in T. S. Eliot. Cassandra Laity and Nancy K. Gish, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. 260. $60.00 (cloth).

Here are twelve essays whose organizing rubrics—homoeroticisms, desire, modern women—show the generative impact of feminist, queer, gay/lesbian and gender studies on the reception of one of Anglo-American modernism's most central and volatile authors. The anthology succeeds admirably in disengaging itself from the "fixed symbolic role" (5) assigned for Eliot (by himself and others) in modernism: the role of a reactionary monolith and cultural czar ("whether his mouth be open or shut").1 This "pinned and wriggling" figure stuck on our wall by a critical hypostasizing of modernism is here precisely re-calibrated.2 The collection goes a long way towards producing a "differentiated," self-contradictory Eliot filled with "dilemma" (9, 23). It does this mainly by focusing on "the complex gender dynamics" of earlier modernism in relation to Eliot's poems (2), as well as on the depiction of female figures in Eliot's plays. The review of recent criticism on Eliot and on modernism conducted by Cassandra Laity is lucid, deft and [End Page 599] penetrating, and provides an overview not only of Eliot and of this volume but also a defense of the claims of modernist studies as it is practiced in this journal's pages. Gail McDonald's contextualization of Eliot's reception, Rachel Potter's arguments about gender and liberalism, and Nancy Gish's analysis of the psychological theories of Pierre Janet contemporaneous with early Eliot, all do a solid and useful job of (in Laity's words) "resituating [Eliot] in the sex/gender/erotic ferment of his own time" (3).

The key concern of many of the essays is Eliot's doubleness, the helix of his daring/surrender and his repugnance/recoiling in matters of gender, sexuality, desire. Colleen Lamos, herself the author of an incisive book on modern masculinity and transgressive sexualities, discusses the "intertwining of homophilia and homophobia" in his work (24), in which "representation[s] of homoeroticism" and its "disavowal" are simultaneous and interrelated (23). In Eliot "the homosexual prohibition" is "productive": it "feeds upon the desire that it constrains" (24). For Nancy Gish, Eliot had a "double strategy" in his earliest poetry: "to claim and to disavow desire" (107). Elisabeth Däumer sees in Eliot's plays the "coexistence of misogyny and female advocacy" (235). For Tim Dean "'violation'" is the paradoxical precondition for [the ideal of] that 'inviolable voice'" (60). The consistency of these findings in different tones and with different turns is a strength of the anthology. For Gail McDonald, wittily, "at once an insider and an outsider, [Eliot] crafted a position as keeper of the cultural flame at the same time that his most famous poem appeared to many readers to question whether there was any flame left to keep" (181). Probably the most exciting finding to do with Eliot's doubleness comes in Peter Middleton's essay, because he, unlike many of the essayists, directly faces Eliot's turn in the middle period, and its cultural implications.

Queered Eliot receives much attention here. Several essays on homoeroticism make use of Leo Bersani's arguments about masochism, passivity and self-abandonment, so that, in Tim Dean's view, "Eliot's poetry makes clear that aesthetic impersonality threatens masculinity as we know it" (59). Dean is attentive to the intricacies of "the feminine" in a male poet, and particularly to "how Eliot's conception of the poet as a passive medium for alien utterances tacitly feminizes the poet's role" (44). This leads to a reexamination of Eliot's theory of impersonality, as a persona passively "spoken through," as if the poet were a medium (55). This is consistent with Lamos's readings of Eliot's citational strategies as evincing a "feminine" cultural position. Michele Tepper produces a fresh reading of some of Eliot's best known essays by analyzing closely the metaphors of desire and sensuousness that attend Eliot's arguments for tradition via an erotic intimacy. Nonetheless she sees Eliot's use of homoeroticism...


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