Leo Bersani

Joan Copjec

In May 2010 my visit to the University of Chicago overlapped by chance with that of Leo Bersani. Told I was on campus, he emailed to ask if I’d like to have dinner with him. Profoundly flattered, I accepted almost immediately, for I had first to set aside a flutter of trepidation. Leo and I came to know each other professionally in the 1980s when I was an editor of October and he was one of the journal’s favorite and loyal contributors. Beyond this, however, I shared with him a commitment to psychoanalytic thinking. The trepidation that held me back was rooted in the enormous admiration I had for his work, which manifested itself most dramatically in a specific encounter with it.

I do not recall what month it was in 1987 when I walked into the tiny October “headquarters,” slightly late, expecting just another day at the office. The issue we were putting together was number 43, which was devoted to the AIDS crisis, a topic outside my intellectual expertise, or so I thought. It was Douglas Crimp who proposed the issue, and so it was he who was primarily responsible for it; all I had to do was assist him with the editing and layout. When I walked in, Douglas was absorbed in reading the most recently received contribution, Leo’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?” “That’s the title?,” I asked as I went into the enjoining cubicle to read the text myself. I do not feel adequate to describe my response to Leo’s essay. I had always in my own way fought back hard against those who dismissed Freud and psychoanalysis as irrelevant—or worse: pernicious—as if it were some ornate, antiquated machine with an excessive number of bells and whistles that served no purpose, or—worse—a Trojan horse sent in to undermine the polity. The unforgettable opening line of Leo’s essay, “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it,” seemed to me to put paid to all the vague grumblings against psychoanalysis, which in this essay shows up—in the flesh, as it were—to grapple with the real world.[1]

Part of the fascination of the essay’s declarative opening is the way it accommodates the seemingly delicate “do not like.” The quotations that mark the essay’s threshold betray a much stronger reaction: a violent disgust or revulsion, which sex is capable of eliciting and must be swallowed, overcome, or made use of by those who engage in sex. The intent of Leo, however, is to leave no one off the hook. His choice of the word like, cannot be read as it were merely borrowed from the vocabulary of prudes or those who wish to hide their lasciviousness behind a prudish or proper facade. The reference to a milder form of reserve toward sex serves instead a blanketing function. It spreads itself over everyone. There is no one who likes sex, but this not due to a mere or occasional squeamishness. The AIDS crisis forces us finally to confront the fact that sex is something no one likes. Or: it is not something anyone can cozy up to.

The argument only appears to depart from Freud when it insists that the problem of sex is not merely that the discomfort we all—in large or small part—feel toward it leads to a subjective or cultural repression of it. At play here is what Freud called secondary repression, which reacts to what it wishes not to confront by pushing it out of consciousness, that is, by negating it psychically. Leo’s point is much more profound: the difficulty of sex stems from primary repression, that is from the fact that human existence is not propped up by any foundation or ground. The crucial negativity associated with sex is not the one that fends it off by pushing it away but the negativity of this primordially withdrawn ground. For, sex can be defined as the affirmation of this latter negativity. Sexual pleasure is directed not at persons or objects but at this breach in existence. This sounds, I know, like an abstract argument – and all the more so because it is impossible, and not my point, to flesh it out here. My point is that “Is the Rectum a Grave?” is unprecedented in the way it makes the case for this seemingly abstract argument by identifying the ways it was manifesting itself during the crisis AIDS. It is one thing to point out what many could already see, the way official policies and proper people fended off scenes of sexual debauchery conjured in their febrile imaginations, another to see what others could not. Namely, that a whole “culture of redemption” was more than happy to celebrate sex as long as sex—the negativity it affirms—is removed from it. If a multiplicity of sexes had begun to emerge it was to fend off the damage sex visits on identity.

“Is the Rectum a Grave?” forced me to reread all of Leo’s work. I had learned a great deal from it in my first reading, but this time I knew how to look for the “clinical” element in it, the way it approaches and responds to the world in which we live. In his work Leo accords sex an ontological dignity, not in some idealizing sense, of course, but insofar as he conceives it as an act of dispossession from which something unprecedented can be brought forth.

My Chicago dinner with Leo lasted hours. As our conversation ranged over various outrageous topics, I lost my trepidation but not my awe. Many more dinners followed, as well as a trip to the ballet, and a conference at which I obliged Leo to come up with a theory of fatigue (which he did). Like many others, I would have preferred that these delightful encounters continue indefinitely.


Joan Copjec is professor of modern culture and media at Brown University.


[1] Leo 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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