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Dead Letters Sent

Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmission

Kevin Ohi
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Dead Letters Sent
    Book Description:

    Literary texts that address tradition and the transmission of knowledge often seem concerned less with preservation than with loss, recurrently describing scenarios of what author Kevin Ohi terms "thwarted transmission." Such scenes, however, do not so much concede the impossibility of survival as look into what constitutes literary knowledge and whether it can properly be said to be an object to be transmitted, preserved, or lost.

    Beginning with general questions of transmission-the conveying of knowledge in pedagogy, the transmission and material preservation of texts and forms of knowledge, and even the impalpable communication between text and reader-Dead Letters Sentexamines two senses of "queer transmission." First, it studies the transmission of a minority sexual culture, of queer ways of life and the specialized knowledges they foster. Second, it examines the queer potential of literary and cultural transmission, the queerness that is sheltered within tradition itself. By exploring how these two senses are intertwined, it builds a persuasive argument for the relevance of queer criticism to literary study. Its detailed attention to works by Plato, Shakespeare, Swinburne, Pater, Wilde, James, and Faulkner seeks to formulate a practice of reading adequate to the queerness Ohi's book uncovers within the literary tradition.

    Ohi identifies a radical new future for both queer theory and close reading: the possibility that each might exceed itself in merging with the other, creating a queer theory of literary tradition immanent in an immersed practice of reading.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4432-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-32)

    Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmissionexplores the queerness of “transmission,” understood broadly: the conveying of knowledge in pedagogy, the transmission and material preservation of texts, the maintaining of a tradition of knowledge about those texts, and even the impalpable communication between text and reader. “Queer transmission,” then, can be understood in at least two ways: First, it can be understood as the transmission (in all these senses) of a minority queer culture, of the modes through which queer forms of life and specialized knowledges move from generation to generation. How is such knowledge passed on in a world that...

  4. Part I

    • 1 Queer Transmission and the Symposium: Insult, Gay Suicide, and the Staggered Temporalities of Consciousness
      (pp. 35-48)

      InPlace for Us, D. A. Miller writes of the Broadway musical:

      Along with a very few other terms . . . , “Broadway” denominates those early pre-sexual realities of gay experience to which, in numerous lives, it became forever bound: not just the solitude, shame, secretiveness by which the impossibility of social integration was first internalized; or the excessive sentimentality that was a necessary condition of sentiments allowed no real object; but also the intense, senseless joy that, while not identical to those destitutions, is neither extricable from them. Precisely against such realities, however, is post-Stonewall gay identity defined:...

    • 2 Forgetting The Tempest
      (pp. 49-66)

      A curious scene inThe Tempesthas Prospero repeatedly, even obsessively, interrupting his narration to Miranda of the circumstances of their exile from Milan with injunctions to pay attention: “dost thou attend me? . . . thou attend’st not . . . dost thou hear?”¹ Reading Prospero’s weird, almost paranoiac, fear that Miranda’s attention will lapse just as he is telling her (as he would have it) who she is—a tale, she notes, that he has several times begun only to break off, midstory, himself—we should, perhaps, before “explaining” it psychologically, attend to its strangeness, which links it...

  5. Part II

    • 3 Tradition in Fragments: Swinburne’s “Anactoria”
      (pp. 69-81)

      Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Anactoria” (inPoems and Ballads,published in 1865) is explicitly about the relation between erotic desire and literary transmission. Sappho’s fragmented corpus—only one poem comes to us complete; the rest we have only in fragments—becomes, in the heroic couplets of Swinburne’s dramatic monologue, the desired body of Anactoria, rent and reassembled by a voice riven against itself, in turn, by the extremity of desire. The poem’s imperious voice—in its expression of desire, but also, I will suggest, in its appropriation of Sappho—embodies the two sides of “queer transmission”; the fragmented body of Anactoria...

    • 4 Queer Atavism and Pater’s Aesthetic Sensibility: “Hippolytus Veiled” and “The Child in the House”
      (pp. 82-102)

      In Giorgio Agamben’s reading of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby,” I noted earlier, the scrivener who would prefer not to contests “the retroactive unrealizability of potentiality,”¹ the inevitability, as one might also phrase it, of history; in the terms Agamben takes from Walter Benjamin, Bartleby brings out the capacity of “remembrance” to “redeem” the past: “remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again” (267). Such a redemption—what Daniel Heller-Roazen calls “to read what was never written”²—offers an apt description of the paradoxical form of revival that characterizes both Walter...

  6. Part III

    • 5 “That Strange Mimicry of Life by the Living”: Queer Reading in Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”
      (pp. 105-121)

      The charting of what Leo Bersani calls the “metaphysical sociability” that traverses the contemplation of ideal forms in Plato’sSymposiumled us to perceive ways in which the curiously messy narrative of that dialogue makes the vagaries of transmission central to a theory in which desire for a particular boy would seem to vanish into the contemplation of beauty as idea—beauty purified of any accidental qualities, beauty that is nothing other than beauty itself.¹ Foregrounding that process of transmission, the staging of the dialogue acts out some of the consequences of its understanding of love as a form of...

    • 6 Erotic Bafflement and the Lesson of Oscar Wilde: De Profundis
      (pp. 122-140)

      How splendid it would be if it were true, if shame felt this exquisite, if one’s own abjection could be the occasion for a song like Wilde’s. Some personal destitutions remain stubbornly unremediable, and yet Wilde’s text makes me dream that to formulate my inadequacy to his upbraiding address might begin to describe the erotic appeal of “art for art’s sake.” How splendid that would be. Chapter 5 suggested that Wilde’s “Portrait of Mr. W.H.” offers a complex meditation on absorption—as a cipher of the paradoxical afterlife lived “in” the work of art, of the strange identifications excited by...

  7. Part IV

    • 7 Lessons of the Master: Henry James’s Queer Pedagogy
      (pp. 143-155)

      It is a striking aspect of Henry James’s fiction that no one ever learns anything—or, more precisely, no one is represented learning. Initiation is often a central concern, but its centrality in any given text seems in direct relation to the tendency of the initiation itself to fade from view. Repeatedly, development—of consciousness, of knowledge—is shown to be incompatible with the narrative of development.What Maisie Knewis perhaps the text that gives this structure its fullest expression, but it is also there, for instance, in the logic of childhood innocence inThe Turn of the Screw:...

    • 8 The Beast’s Storied End
      (pp. 156-174)

      It is striking that the two best readings of Henry James’sThe Beast in the Jungle—by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Leo Bersani—find reason to regret its ending, viewing it as a failure of lucidity or nerve on the part of its author.¹ For both, too, what is regrettable about the end is the sudden convergence of author and character, which invests John Marcher with narrative authority or consigns the previously distanced narrator to the particular perplexities of that most perplexed of characters. “James’s bravura in manipulating point of view,” Sedgwick writes, “lets him dissociate himself critically from John...

  8. Part V

    • 9 “My Spirit’s Posthumeity” and the Sleeper’s Outflung Hand: Queer Transmission in Absalom, Absalom!
      (pp. 177-210)

      Literary tradition raises the question of survival and of the artifacts whose possible preservation means that they belong to a time beyond that of any human being. To live “in sculpture” or “in philosophy” is therefore an equivocal proposition; such a sublimation cannot leave one as one “is,” and, for Wilde, immortality (in the paradox Dorian Gray embodies) is achieved through one’s vanishing, just as the continuity of culture is secured, in Pater’s renaissance, through a series of discontinuities. Art makes present not the moment but its vanishing; “humanism” gives us to see the perpetual fading away of the human.¹...

    • 10 “Vanished but Not Gone, Fixed and Held in the Annealing Dust”: Initiations and Endings in Go Down, Moses
      (pp. 211-260)

      William Faulkner has not, to my knowledge, been claimed as part of any gay or queer tradition; his name has perhaps never appeared on any list of a queer canon stretching from Socrates and Plato to Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe to Pater and Wilde to Woolf and Stein to Proust and Jean Genet. That fact may be attributable to our anecdotal knowledge of Faulkner’s life—reinforced by a lingering sense that queer texts are written by queer persons, or that literature expresses the life of the author by mirroring some putatively primary, extraliterary experience—or to a more or less...

  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 261-262)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 263-312)
  11. Index
    (pp. 313-326)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 327-327)