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  • Sedgwick’s Nerve
  • Joseph Litvak (bio)

At the end of “Proust and the Spectacle of the Closet,” which is also the end of Epistemology of the Closet,1 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick evokes the figure of the woman who cannot know: “the omnipotent, unknowing mother” to whom Proust’s novel is addressed, or the female reader thus interpellated, or, in a contemporary declension courtesy of the New York Times, the heterosexual woman terrified by her inability to determine whether the men she is having sex with are bisexuals and therefore (as the insidious reasoning would have it) likely to infect her with AIDS (248). Why does Sedgwick put the unknowing woman at the end of her book? It is safe to say, I think, that she is not defensively anticipating that anyone will take the author of Epistemology of the Closet for an unknowing woman herself. In evoking this figure, rather, Sedgwick has a more pedagogical aim: she is marking both the oppressive ideological place always assigned to women in the construction of male sexuality, and her hope of having opened up ways of intervening in that process, instead of just being abjectly conscripted into it. In her reading of Proust, she suggests, she has in effect been modeling how women might occupy with “more of our own cognitive and desiring animation” the space of male homo/heterosexual definition that they already occupy “dumbly or pseudo-dumbly” (251).

Sedgwick ends the Proust chapter with the woman who cannot know, but she begins it with the woman who does know. Here is the chapter’s epigraph, from À la recherche du temps perdu: “Vous devez vous y entendre mieux que moi, M. de Charlus, à faire marcher des petits marins. . . . Tenez, voici un livre que j’ai reçu, je pense qu’il vous intéressera. . . . Le titre est joli: Parmi les hommes” (213). Although Sedgwick does not identify her, the speaker here is the monstrous arriviste, Madame Verdurin, who is trying to snag the Prince de Guermantes for her “little clan,” as she calls her social circle, by inviting him to a “charity entertainment at which sailors from the neighborhood would give a representation of a ship setting sail.” Here is the passage in English, with a bit more of its context: [End Page 253]

You must know far better than I do, M. de Charlus, how to get round young sailors. . . . But really we are giving ourselves a lot of trouble for M. de Guermantes. Perhaps he’s only one of those idiots from the Jockey Club. Oh! Heavens, I’m running down the Jockey Club, and I seem to remember that you’re one of them. Eh, Baron, you don’t answer me, are you one of them? You don’t want to come out with us? Look, here’s a book that has just come which I think you’ll find interesting. It’s by Roujon. The title is attractive: Among Men.2

Sedgwick is a comic critic as Proust is a comic novelist, so it is not surprising that she opens this chapter with a joke—a joke whose punch line, with its invocation of her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), is self-critical but not exactly self-deprecating, since it raises the question of whether Proust influenced Sedgwick or Sedgwick influenced Proust. The joke, in fact, might be a good example of what, as we shall see, Sedgwick herself calls her “nerve.” But for all its nerve, or because of its nerve, the joke evinces a certain nervousness as well. Sedgwick, after all, isn’t the only woman making a joke here, and the other woman’s joke—indeed, in the longer version I have just quoted, a virtual stand-up comedy routine—starkly displays the aggression of jokes, in this case aggression of a specifically homophobic kind, aimed at the spectacularly closeted Charlus. While Sedgwick’s joke, with its self-critical edge, differentiates her from the exuberantly gay-baiting Madame Verdurin, the self-criticism consists in acknowledging Sedgwick’s contamination by Madame Verdurin, through the very medium of a worldly wit inseparable from homophobic knowingness. Wittily showing herself to be (almost) inscribed in...


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pp. 253-262
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