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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.3 (2001) 1-32

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"There is no Gomorrah": Narrative Ethics in Feminist and Queer Theory

Lynne Huffer

Colette in Gomorrah

In her 1941 work, The Pure and the Impure, Colette offers a series of oblique reflections on gender, sexuality, artistic creation, and the ethical questions that link individual expression to a social context of evaluation, judgment, history, and culture. She does this through an exploration of pleasure--the realm of the sexual and the aesthetic--in a kind of guided tour of the Parisian artistic underworld of the early twentieth century. In particular, Colette's portrayal of a French modernist version of Sodom and Gomorrah highlights an all-too-familiar tension between rigid moral judgment and the seemingly infinite diversity of sexual expression; 1 more specifically, in a passage that explicitly reinvokes the Biblical story of the Cities of the Plain, Colette confronts a narrative that, since the Middle Ages, has buttressed the edifice of moral purity against the purportedly impure dangers of sexual otherness. What she says is somewhat surprising: "There is no Gomorrah. [. . .] Intact, enormous, eternal, Sodom looks down from its heights upon its puny counterfeit" (131-32 translation modified).

Admittedly, this passage is troubling, and in fact it has haunted me for over fifteen years, despite the fact that I've chewed on it, written [End Page 1] about it, and repeatedly discussed it with my colleagues and students. 2 To be sure, the mere mention of the names, Sodom and Gomorrah, is enough to haunt anyone, myself included, who falls outside the most rigid definition of sexual norms. 3 So when Colette reinvokes the paradigmatic Biblical story about the righteous punishment of "sinners against the Lord," she reinscribes a narrative that has justified and sustained centuries of hatred, exclusion, and homophobic violence. Of course, that is not all there is to the story, especially for Colette. Obviously enough, it is not just the narrative from Genesis, but rather its particular form in Colette's retelling of it, that produces the feeling of a haunting--of a text that, like a ghost, literally returns again and again. On one abstract, theoretical level, the retold story as revenant simply serves as a reminder of a general principle about the production of signification itself, namely the sedimentation of meaning that occurs as a result of repetition. But the ghost of Colette also points to a more important principle of language whose consequences are not at all abstract: namely, that repetition occurs, through time, with a difference.

In fact, there is more than one ghost here. For behind the revenant of Colette's text lie the spectres of a death of genocidal proportions. Indeed, with the perspective provided by historical hindsight, the immediate context of The Pure and the Impure--published in France during World War II 4 --points both to the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In that sense, the Biblical story of punishment by death serves to symbolize these and other historical acts of mass destruction. Here is the description from the nineteenth chapter of Genesis: "Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of those cities, and what grew on the ground" (Gen. 19.24-25). The Biblical imagery gives flesh and human form to the seemingly abstract principle of discursive effacement through repetition, metaphorically resurrecting the once living cities, their inhabitants, and all that grew within their borders. The violence of sulfur and fire from heaven allegorizes the moment, in language, of the snuffing out itself, the eradication of difference that Irigaray describes in Speculum of the Other Woman as the self-reflective, identitarian logic of Western thought. That logic reduces difference or otherness to a repetition of sameness through the metaphorical operations of language. It is a logic whose effects can be quite literally murderous. In its most prominent manifestations, notably for Irigaray in the archetypical...


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