Learning from Leo

Tim Dean

“Nothing is more ominous than the unanimous reverence with which Volumes 2 and 3 have been received in France, or the hagiographical industry already at work on—really against—Foucault’s life and writing.”  This sentence, written by Bersani following Foucault’s death as he reflected on the final installments of The History of Sexuality, came to mind when I heard that Leo himself had died.  The temptation of hagiography is never more beguiling than in the wake of a great thinker’s death.  What struck me when I first read that sentence over thirty years ago was the notion of a “hagiographical industry” gearing up to preserve—but only by reducing, embalming, and fossilizing—a profoundly recalcitrant body of thought.  The noble beneficence of the industry cloaks its destructiveness.  Bersani named, as if in anticipation, the risk of the present moment in which we seek to memorialize him and his work, spurred on by that relentless pressure to idealize the newly dead.

If one of the things I most admire about his writing stems from its resistance to all our idealizing impulses—impulses he analyzed under the rubric of “the culture of redemption”—then I also appreciated his characteristic irreverence in conversation.  Once, when running late for dinner with Leo in San Francisco, I made the mistake of trying to outpace California Highway Patrol on Route 101.  Relishing my tale of an encounter with the officer who caught me, Leo began to improvise a set of facetious remarks he’d deliver at my funeral, “because your speeding will surely send you to an early grave.”  For him, now as much as then, it was never the time for sentimentality, no matter how serious the subject.

His irreverence toward the orthodoxies of queer theory meant that he could be a part of that field of inquiry only by being permanently outside it.  In 1998, after reading one of my manuscripts, Leo remarked, “You’ve become very queer, haven’t you?”  It was not meant as a compliment.  We spoke on the phone while he was writing Homos, but I had no opportunity to read that book until it reached print.  With the subsequent book, Caravaggio’s Secrets, Leo began sending me the manuscripts of everything he wrote.  I was never his student, never his lover, and never his colleague; our friendship evolved independently of those relational structures, simply through the repeated exchange of writing and conversation.  Though he was older than my father, we somehow spoke as equals about sex, about psychoanalysis, about aesthetic subjectivity.  That ongoing exchange—some of which appeared in print but most of which occurred in restaurants or cafes and on park benches—has been my primary intellectual relationship of the past quarter century.  Does it go without saying that the conversation hasn’t ceased with his death, that the back-and-forth continues inside me?

Two days after Leo died, I received author copies of Hatred of Sex, the book I wrote with Oliver Davis.  As its title suggests, Hatred of Sex may be read as an elaboration, in different contexts and idioms, of the sentence that opens “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” Bersani’s famous essay from 1987 (“There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.”).  It would be an understatement to say that my joy in the book’s publication is tinged with sadness that Leo will never be able to read it.  Yet the book remains part of my ongoing dialogue with him, even as it is also the result of dialogues with Oliver Davis, another intellectual whose home discipline is in French.  Hatred of Sex endeavors, in part, to historicize “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in the context of 1980s debates about sexuality—to put Bersani’s essay in its place, as it were—at the same time as it tries to reanimate his best insights for our contemporary political moment.  Beyond anything it says about his work, our book is inspired by Leo.  And there is comfort to be taken in the circumstance that I now have Oliver to assume Leo’s role of expressing exasperated amusement at my execrable French.  He lives on through his published work but also through the echoes of his voice in other conversations.  I continue to hear Leo, as well as to read him.

Now I think back to an afternoon in October 2016, when we sat in his Philadelphia living room discussing drafts of two chapters from what would become his final book, Receptive Bodies.  Later, in notebook pages containing my scribbled thoughts about “Staring” (that last book’s stunning final chapter), I found I’d written, in large capital letters, LEARN FROM LEO—a reminder to the part of myself which had yet to fully grasp that learning from Leo was what I’ve been doing all along (never his student, I am always his student).  From my notes I gather that what I was instructing myself to learn was the distinctive way in which he put an essay together, his mode of composition.  Yes, he wrote everything by hand in notebooks; and, yes, his prose style was always a singular pleasure to encounter.  But in that last chapter of what turned out to be his final book, he reflected explicitly on a style of thinking that he calls “essayistic” and “inconclusive.”  It is not only a style of writing and argumentation but embodies an ethical relation to the world, one less concerned with mastery.  Because the “essayistic” refuses the systematization that modern philosophy demands, it goes some way toward defeating the monumentalization of thought that hagiography produces once it sets to work on a major thinker.  For me Bersani’s thinking remains valuable precisely insofar as it resists memorialization.  So, what I want to say is: I love him, I miss him, I can’t believe he’s gone; but please let us not have, now or ever, Saint Leo. 


Tim Dean is the James M. Benson Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.