Leo Bersani

Jacqueline Rose

I have been reading, rereading, and teaching the writings of Leo Bersani for a very long time but never with the intensity with which I have returned to his work over this last while. It has been my silent tribute and a way of insisting I have a connection—as much to the words on the page as to who he was—that will never die.

In fact the separation of the two—his words and his person—was always well-nigh impossible. First, because I can think of no one else who was so loyal to his theoretical and political principles in his lived life. I am not referring here to time spent at the gay baths, seized on by one commentator over this past month as the sign of “aesthetic frivolity,” relegating him to the world of light entertainment (he was never more deadly serious). Nor am I alluding to the way his loving relationships, full of care and kindness, managed to escape the most proprietorial of bourgeois, family norms. Rather what I am describing is the way his writing endlessly circles around the same limit—or off-limit—zone of human subjectivity where the ego shatters, to use one of his favorite words, and the coherence of selfhood is utterly undone. The more I have read, the more it has struck me that tracking this moment was, for Leo, a theoretical task which implicated him at the deepest level of his being. I would say that this task was at the core of his life, provided we add that death was no less in the frame. Living your life at its most sexually intense and psychically risky, I now hear him saying, is a way—the only way—to be able, or allow yourself, to die (to die one’s own death, which is the aim of all life according to Freud.) He was a visionary. To relinquish narcissism, to challenge the pseudo fortifications of a violent social order, means going beyond the edges of the knowable world.

Over the past couple of weeks, one moment from his writing has struck me with almost overwhelming force in this regard. It comes in the middle of his book on Caravaggio. Discussing St John the Baptist with a Ram (1602), Leo points to the provocative erotics of St. John’s look and his body, only to insist—through his unique form of meticulous attention—that the painting invites and forestalls that very seduction by means of the “multiple fanlike” structures of the image which implicate each limb and gesture in shapes and a space beyond itself, “opening out centrifugally, countering the centripetal pull of the youth’s gaze.”[1] Ventriloquising the boy, he writes: “Join me, although where I am is somewhere between two realms of being, between my physical, individuated existence and my being as a disseminated connectedness throughout the universe.” We are talking about a “metaphysical fantasy” that leads this figure into a world beyond the world (C, p. 82). And then, in an unexpected gesture only Leo could have got away with, he grounds that otherworldly nature in the painterly detail and precision of the boy’s face or, rather, in one particular detail, the “anomalous creases under his eyes”—anomalous because he is a still a boy and he is perfect—which he reads as the sign of the time it has taken him to reach these other forms of metaphysical belonging. It is 1998, and this is one of his coauthored books, but, whether this is my metaphysical fantasy or not, I believe these to be Leo’s words. As I was reading them, a scene resurfaced in my mind. It is sometime in the 1990s and Leo and I are sitting in a café in Paris talking about eyes and aging (eyes being the giveaway), whereupon he pointed at the intense creases under his own eyes, creases that no one could miss, which indeed spoke of his age but which also accentuated his not inconsiderable beauty.

So, I find myself asking, might not this be one of the rare moments in his writing where, with all due equivocation, he is talking about himself? Is he not laying out the price, and value, of the struggle to go beyond oneself into more expansive and generous forms of affinity? Already in 1998, I see him as anticipating, if not embracing, his death. These are the last lines of the chapter: “The creases under the eyes of Caravaggio’s youth are the anticipatory effect of the time it would take him to join his metaphysical being, a journey to which he must sacrifice his youth, and perhaps even his very life” (C, p. 83). I think Leo knew exactly what, in his writing and his life, he was asking of himself. Just as he knew that the casual encounter in the bath house, far from being glib or merely pleasurable, was freighted with death (the very point of his most infamous essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?”).[2] To put it another way, he was always on the journey that would end but that would also begin—while refusing any glimmer of denial or false comfort—with his own death. Or perhaps, this idea just helps me to think that he had always been preparing for the day he would head off into the far distance, leaving the rest of us grief-stricken on the shore.


Jacqueline Rose is professor of humanities at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.


[1] Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Caravaggio’s Secrets (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), p. 81; hereafter abbreviated C.

[2] See Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”: and Other Essays (Chicago, 2010).

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  1. Pingback: Leo Bersani (1931-2022) | In the Moment

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