Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 195-201
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Queering Filiality, Raising the Dead
New York University
Do we not, all of us, secretly wish our reading to be a form of transportation far away? Do we not--especially those of us turned professional readers, cast out from the gardens and closets and nighttime beds of our earliest reading paradises--cast about for any writing that might fan this warm nostalgic glow into a bright flame that could illuminate our own scholarly work?
In Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, Carolyn Dinshaw writes to "explode the categories of sameness, otherness, past, present, loss, pleasure" (p. 2). 1 She writes of a "desire for bodies to touch across time" (p. 3). For her, "queer histories are made of affective relations" (p. 12). I think she writes of Barthes, writing of Michelet's longing for the body of the past because, for her, resurrection is also the name of the game--a trio of voices raising the dead. To read, to read the past through eyes possessed by the presentiment of desire, the desire of becoming something else, something more, by virtue of and through the virtues of the others one reads. She is in the business not only of translation but also of transportation.
Dinshaw also tells us that she writes using Donna Haraway's notion of "partial connection." Haraway draws our attention to the idea that "the knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly and therefore able to join with another, to see without claiming to be another" (p. 14). Dinshaw's modest, ventriloquized declaration of imperfection allows me to imagine myself writing out in connection to her my own reading of the seventeenth-century Chinese erotic novel The Carnal Prayermat, by Li Yu. 2 I bring him to this chorale as a gift of metaphor because he comes from a faraway domain. I ferry him across because some of his projects remind me of Dinshaw's, especially his constant queering [End Page 195] of the filial orthodoxy of sex as reproductive, especially his use of this maneuver to perversely preserve the contrasting orthodoxy of Buddhism.
I call his moves "queer" in the spirit of Fran Martin, who notes that in the 1995 story "Searching for the Lost Wings of the Angel," by Taiwanese lesbian writer Chen Xue, "Queer is then figured as that which moves between and on the borders of discursive systems, continually interrupting each by means of the other, between and within discourses of psychoanalysis and traditional family, lesbian identity and daughterhood." 3 Her remarks resonate with Dinshaw's own insight that "appropriation, misrecognition, disidentification: these terms that queer theory has highlighted all point to the alterity within mimesis itself, the never-perfect aspect of identification" (p. 35).
I have always been drawn to Li Yu's work not only because it has subtlety and humor, but because Li Yu fearlessly writes his way out of so many authoritative discourses of his time, often by pitting them mercilessly against one another in his fiction and then inviting the reader to sit back and watch them take each other down the chute of sexual passion he has so liberally lubricated for us. Today I'd like to talk about some incidents in The Carnal Prayermat that queer the straight discourse of filial reproduction by crossing them with Buddhist expectations delivered in the flesh of women's bodies. 4
The Carnal Prayermat was written in 1657, in China's early modernity, only thirteen years after the northern Manchus took Beijing by horseback, founding the dynasty that would rule China until 1911. It is, thus, a product of devastating conquest warfare, a context that never appears overtly in the text. 5 It tells instead the story of a young scholar, the beautiful Vesperus, who loves sex so much that he sets out upon a voluptuary's conquest of his own, a battle to bed as many women as possible...