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“A child is being beaten”: Peter Pan, Peter Grimes, and a Queer Case of Modernism

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 39, Issue 4, December 2013
pp. 33-54 | 10.1353/esc.2013.0054

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Philip Brett argues that the interval of a minor third, with its evil and foreboding affect, “signif[ies] homosexuality” (Allen 280) in the work of Benjamin Britten, thereby suggesting that the queer eyes we’ve devoted to straight guys may have unfairly plugged our queer ears. However strange or unlikely it is to find that the empire of Gaydar (that contemporary version of Sedgwick’s “reign of the telling secret” [67]) has extended its reach even to the auditory realm, this queer code cracking begs for a more radically queer departure from the mundanely “homosexual” (Allen 280) or biographical readings of Britten’s work. Interpretations rooted in biography are not without precedent in Britten criticism. Stephen Arthur Allen, for instance, claims that Britten was “addicted to schoolboy puns, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that phonetic interpretations of pitch-classes such as Bb=Be flat! … [or] codes and signals were not lost on him” (280). I contend that using Britten’s alleged personality and interests as an interpretive code to his work conceals or at least diverts us from a more unsettling queer reading, one that does not merely add homosexuality to the picture but instead critiques the emotional economies of heteronormative attachments to children. To extend Brett’s intriguing, if perhaps too easy, argument about Britten’s homosexual minor thirds, might we instead look to the literal “minors” of this opera? The title character of the opera is a fisherman whose former apprentice, the young boy William Spode, has been previously lost at sea. In the opera, Grimes reboards his craft, “The Boy Billy,” with a new young apprentice, John. The traumatic history repeats, as John too dies in Grimes’s care. Grimes, realizing something, although it is unclear precisely what, about the inevitability of this repetition, kills himself in the end of this opera. In all of these cases, Grimes’s “minor” is far more foreboding when we take it literally.

To radicalize rather than to reject a particularly contentious gay stereotype, this article asserts that Grimes’s fixation and indirect termination of children is not at all unrelated to “homosexuality.” Indeed, as Lee Edelman suggests in his book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, the figure of the child in North American culture, which is neither coeval nor completely distinct from any actual children, is the “anti-queer” (Bruhm and Hurley xiii) in its implied valorization of the future over the present and in its prioritization of the family over any other kind of human coalition. Edelman describes the responsibility of the modern queer in language that describes our man Grimes all too literally: “what is queerest about us, queerest within us, and queerest despite us is this willingness to insist intransitively—to insist that the future stop here” (29–31). Edelman’s definition of queerness implicitly follows and reignites Foucault’s famous claim (a claim we need to hear more in a culture of increasing homonormativity) that homosexuality “threatens people as a ‘way of life’ rather than as a way of having sex” (“Friendship” 310). Edelman’s turn to negativity is a ghostly revision of Foucault as well: for him, queerness threatens people as a way of life cum a way of death.

The genre of Britten’s Peter Grimes is central to its reception and our understanding of it, given not only that opera is associated in various ways with queerness but, moreover, that the opera is such a high art form. Because of its genre and milieu, this opera’s refiguring of the (underage) minor itself constitutes another kind of minor: a “minor literature” (16), in Deleuze and Guattari’s phraseology. If a minor literature, as they claim, “doesn’t come from a minor language, it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language” (16), then we have a new way to understand why an opera—a rare opera in the English language, at that—has more and not less potential to undo major language and modes. Our most major beliefs about protecting children at all costs are subtly brought into question in this English opera. That all of these various modes of “minor” are intimately...



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