- Sadness: Seriously
In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love offers a nuanced, reflective, and beautifully written exploration of an abjected body of texts attesting to a queer past characterized by sadness, loss, and suffering. Exploring the work of Walter Pater, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Willa Cather, and Radclyffe Hall, Love identifies such disparate figures as sharing an oblique and problematic relationship to the homosexual identity they variously preceded, evaded, rejected, or embraced only in terms of a now-dated discourse of inversion. Through her investigation of such seemingly superseded texts and their historical moments, Love offers an acutely perceptive account of the contemporary status and stakes of queer history and criticism, exploring why such texts pose particular problems for contemporary analysis while also evoking uncomfortable investments and ongoing identifications.
Love observes that a “central paradox of any transformative criticism is that its dreams for the future are founded on a history of suffering, stigma, and violence” (1), posing the question of how to acknowledge this troubled past without remaining bound to it. Love’s study speaks to a political moment characterized by a striking tension between an American public sphere characterized by rights-based political advances and [End Page 349] panoply of Human Rights Campaign–endorsed images of beaming, buff, and professionally legitimized lesbians and gay men, their children hunting for Easter eggs on the White House lawn, and the bleaker realities of those queer people, disproportionately people of color, for whom physical safety, quality health care, housing, education, and full citizenship remain the aspirational hallmarks of a hazy political horizon. Engaging the problem of articulating a queer past commensurate to such an ambivalent present, Love identifies backwardness as an archetypal figure of queer historical experience. As she asserts,
Backwardness means many things here: shyness, ambivalence, failure, melancholia, loneliness, regression, victim-hood, heartbreak, antimodernism, immaturity, self-hatred, despair, shame. I describe backwardness as both a queer historical structure and as a model for queer historiography.(146)
Taking up a range of late nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century texts and figures whose texts explore and evince social negativity, Love articulates a backward canon of antimodern modernists whose representations of queer melancholia can neither be incorporated easily into Whiggish models of the queer past nor expunged from the queer present. Love acknowledges the potential ambivalence of reifying phobic associations between queerness and backwardness, exemplified by the figuration of same-sex desire as a form of arrested or damaged psychosexual development (6). She nonetheless underscores the structuring significance of retrospective orientation within queer culture of the last one hundred years, variously manifest in the aesthetic nostalgia of camp, kitsch, and fandom; explorations of memory, spectrality, and spiritualism (7); attention to “childish” pleasures and traumas; and the “strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices” that Judith Halberstam describes elsewhere as constituting “queer time.”1
Feeling Backward works most powerfully as historiographic polemic, with the main force of its argument deriving from its extended and nuanced introductory chapters. One of the text’s strengths lies in Love’s assured exploration of generational trends in gay and lesbian historiography and their relationship to the political present. As she describes, the emergence of gay and lesbian history in the 1970s and early 1980s was marked by a turn away from a representational history “littered with the corpses of gender and sexual deviants” (1). Such scholarship expunged the more difficult aspects of the gay and lesbian past in order [End Page 350] to instantiate a more just present, or alternately responded to histories of exclusion and suffering by articulating teleological narratives of ever increasing enfranchisement (1–3). Affectively intense romantic friendships were reified in this period as the paradigmatic form of historical relationship between women, affirming a genealogical link between latter-day lesbian feminists and figures such as the Ladies of Llangollen, whose eighteenth-century Welsh ménage was figured as blissfully free of hostile or prurient attention. Reappropriating its central terms from histories of stigma and abuse, Love notes that queer...