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Outing T. S. Eliot

From: Criticism
Volume 47, Number 1, Winter 2005
pp. 7-30 | 10.1353/crt.2006.0001

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Criticism 47.1 (2005) 7-30

Suzanne W. Churchill

Davidson College

"Was T. S. Eliot gay?"

Questions about Eliot's sexuality have simmered in Eliot studies for decades, coming to a full boil with the recent publication of Carole Seymour-Jones's biography of Eliot's first wife, Vivienne, which claims that the poet was a closet homosexual. Distinguished critics such as Helen Vendler and Louis Menand have rushed to Eliot's defense, insisting either that he wasn't gay or that we shouldn't even be discussing his sexuality. The terms of the ensuing debate suggest that despite developments in queer theory and gender studies, we still have not found satisfactory ways to talk about the enigmatic sexuality of this elusive poet. Moreover, the sensational debate masks a more commonplace but no less crucial concern: long after Barthes pronounced the author dead and Foucault predicted the imminent demise of the "author-function," we still find ourselves writing and talking about authors, cognizant that they may be only discursive constructions to us but equally aware that the author once existed as a living, breathing, writing person. While we have acquired, via Foucault and other theorists, an extensive vocabulary for analyzing discursive functions and subject positions, such abstract terminology does not seem adequate to account for the physical, embodied life of the author, nor for his embeddedness in relationships with real, living, breathing others. It certainly does not account for our continued fascination with Eliot, the evasive, pseudonymous, multifaceted author whom Marianne Moore described as "a master of the anonymous . . . the cat who could never be caught." Critics and biographers endeavor to capture Eliot, characterizing him variously as the brilliant philosopher-poet-critic or the troubled hysteric, the bold innovator or the elitist reactionary, the misogynist, the racist, or the anti-Semite. Seymour-Jones's effort to "out" Eliot is just another round of the same chase—an attempt, if you will, to let the cat out of the bag.

My purpose here is not to pin down Eliot's sexual orientation, nor to determine which characterization of him is most accurate. Instead, I am interested in the drive to capture "the cat"—to expose the man behind the manuscripts. In this essay, I argue that the impulse to "out" Eliot obstructs a nuanced analysis of the powerful homoerotic currents in his writings. This essay delineates the ethical and aesthetic limitations of the "homosexual reading" of the poet; alternatively, it reorients criticism toward a homoerotic reading of his poetry. I am not simply reanimating old arguments about the Impersonality of the Poet or the Death of the Author; instead, I argue that we must take into account the insights of queer theory and recognize the fluidity of human sexuality. But rather than insisting, as in the queer model, that the body is "a product of repeated discursive practices," we might reclaim the body—not as a natural, unmarked site but as a formative aspect of personhood. Eliot breathed, ate, wrote, and had sex (or didn't) in a particular body. Our only access to Eliot is through discourse—through his writings, which are not mirrors, fingerprints, or bodily secretions. Nevertheless, these writings were produced by and through his body and remain tangentially linked to him—that is, touching at some point in time and space, but not contiguous, nor fully aligned. The writings are also tangentially linked to the readers who interpret them. Thus, rather than blending individual subjects and texts into abstract discursive functions, we can understand the author's embodied personhood and writing in a tangential relationship to our own embodied persons and writings. To reconceive authorial identity in this way is to shift our attention from the contents of the closet to the dynamic and formative juncture between the author and reader: the text. It is also to regard the text as a tissue or texture that tangentially connects specific persons who inhabit concrete social and historical settings.

My aim is thus twofold: to redirect attention to the poetry and to develop a more complex model of authorial identity. Eliot's poetry, as I will show, maps competing notions of selfhood, limning a composite, permeable...



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