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  • "The Queer Feeling We All Know":Queer Objects and Orientations in Edith Wharton's (Haunted) Houses
  • Shannon Brennan

In the night that follows his impetuous stab at heteronormativity, Edith Wharton's queerest character is startled to consciousness by his sense of an intruding, untoward object. "I was waked by the queer feeling we all know," Andrew Culwin reflects, "—the feeling that there was something in the room that hadn't been there when I fell asleep" (43). Culwin, the interpellated narrator of "The Eyes," has just surprised himself by proposing marriage to a young cousin—a proposal that he sees as his "suddenly undertak[ing] to promote the moral order of the world" (42). That night, he experiences his "queer feeling," waking to the sense—and then the sight—of a pair of ghostly eyes. Culwin flees their presence, and flees his fiancée, too, embarking on a trajectory that will lead him to Europe, to Hong Kong, and, eventually, to the intimate library where he narrates his story to a few male friends whom he is lustily said to "lik[e] … juicy" (38). We might thus say that his "queer feeling" leads to Culwin's queer orientation. Then again, since this feeling was aroused by the suspicion that the room Culwin occupies has been mysteriously reconfigured, it might be more accurate to recognize that his "queer feeling" was always a matter of his position in space—that is, it has always been a matter of orientation.

I am interested in the emphatically spatial, haptic, and object-oriented quality of this scene of queer reorientation. Equally intriguing is its asserted universality: the proposal that "queer feeling" is a thing that "we all know."1 Taking my cue from Culwin's suggestive phrase, I would like to make a few proposals regarding the construction of queer space in what Annette Benert has referred to as Wharton's "architectural imagination." Wharton, I suggest, renders queerness an always-available mode of experience during a period that was increasingly invested in understanding sexual orientation to be a matter of identity. [End Page 82] While Maria Farland and Richard Kaye have shown how Wharton's theories of sexuality were tied to the medical and juridical discourses of her time, I argue that Wharton's writing stages the queering potential of the nonhuman environment.2 Hers is a theory of the queer feelings and alignments produced by the spaces we inhabit. Beyond positing a "theor[y] of space," Wharton offers a preliminary account of queer subjectivity as the uncanny experience of one's position within a choreography of people, furniture, and objects (Somers 41).3 It is just this spatial aspect of sexual orientation that renders queerness a consistent potential available to the characters and interpellated readers of Wharton's oeuvre.

What might be queer about our relation to the environment? The New Materialist theories of Sara Ahmed and Mel Chen offer two potential strategies for addressing this question. "Bodies are gendered, sexualized, and raced," Ahmed notes, "by how they extend into space" (5). The structure of a room and the objects in it can naturalize particular lifelines and exclude others; they can make certain subjects feel at home while putting others in their place. In this account, queerness is a phenomenological experience, the sense of disorientation that comes of recognizing oneself and one's desires to be out of place—a precarity that also generates possibilities. Like Ahmed, Chen frames queerness in terms of an affective relation to the environment; however, her work is less focused on the experience of alignment than on humans' reciprocal interaction with the material world. Chen locates queerness in the moments when we violate the "proper intimacies" dictated by our ontological scale (11). Language and custom distinguish subjects and objects, animals and matter, and racialized, sexualized, and gendered persons according to hierarchies of "animacy." To cross these boundaries, recognizing our affective and biological relationship with the presumably inanimate environment—to love the couch that enfolds me in its cushions, for instance—is to queer a commonsense ideological scheme. The discussions of "queer orientation" and "queer feeling" that follow are based in these two concepts. Queer orientation involves the social/sexual...


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pp. 82-105
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