Out There

Mikko Tuhkanen

One of the first things I recall Leo telling me, as I was querying him about his intellectual influences, was the lesson he said he had learned from a Harvard professor as an undergrad: how remarkable it was that the seventeenth-century French theater gave us such smoldering tragedies as Racine’s Andromaque, where the crimes of past generations weigh heavily on the living, but also the tragicomedy of Corneille’s Le Cid and the giddy merriment of his Le Menteur. This was a forked opening to literary modernity: the combination of trauma intensities with the frivolous dismissal of all such anguished seriousness. It struck me some time later that this doubleness marks everything Leo ever produced. Early on, he found it in Proust. The Proustian subject desires unfathomable difference: his gaze is riveted to the beloved’s enigma, which it is his task to crack, a revelation that, he thinks, will enable his self-relation. But then, still in Proust, we have the buttercups: the field of yellow that, even though the flowers look like egg yolks, cannot be “known” through the consumption that is the fate of Marcel’s beloveds; rather, they can be merely contemplated with a dazed aesthetic pleasure. We cannot but be enthralled by the world’s fateful messages; but having been thus fascinated, different interests can distract us from our interrogative projects, our will to know.

The Freudian text carries the same doubleness. Leo agreed with Foucault that psychoanalysis was one of the discourses that have trained us into Proustian subjects: we seek hidden knowledge about our selves in the world; we are ready to pull this world apart to get our hands on the treasure. Yet Freud’s rhetorical performance also suggested that our aggression is stymied by other—dissipative, masochistic—pleasures. Freud theorized our loving hatred of the world, but he also exemplified the movements where the inquisitorial self is dismissed in favor of shared frivolities.


Leo sought in such frivolities the possibility of—in the phrase he borrowed from Foucault—“new relational modes.” Like many a true thinker, he only ever thought about one thing. He knew that time is short. I admired his ability to cut through the bullshit, to pay no deference to whatever were the moment’s pieties: he refused to regurgitate what an instant earlier may have been a delightful provocation but had already ossified into yet another phantasm in our dogmatic slumber.


At a dinner, Leo told me of his earliest memory: his family fleeing the Bronx in the night because the father, a restaurateur, had run afoul of the local mafia. Is this why he often repeats in his writing that, rather than submitting to (what Adam Phillips might call) protection rackets—by, say, “subversively reiterating” their demands—we “simply leave” the family or “simply desert” the fortress or “simply disappear” from the scene of our subjection?


From the social-media tributes to Leo I happily gleaned that the days when he was interpellated as the daddy of “the antisocial thesis in queer theory” are behind us. In the “debate club paradigm” of queer theorizing, his arguments in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” and Homos were frequently contrasted with those of various “queer utopianisms.” As is inevitably the case in such models, the juxtaposition is neither incorrect nor adequate. Leo’s thought was always, from its beginnings sixty years ago, invested in the two seemingly incompatible orientations he found in Proust and Freud: our “intractable” antagonism to the world and the ways in which we are greeted by the world’s forms upon our arrival. Riffing on Baudelaire’s horizontalized Swedenborgianism, he suggests that we are, before we are, already out there; the world waits for our arrival with its network of correspondences.


Just as Thoughts and Things had been published, I attended a reading group at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division, the one remaining gay bookstore in New York City. There were perhaps six of us, and I was preparing to enlighten the crowd (I mean, I was obviously the most widely read) concerning the Cartesian complexities of the book’s title. Before I could do so, a dashing young man said that he found it interesting how, at some point of their career, a writer can begin to title his books however, calling them, you know, like, “thoughts and things.” It struck me immediately: Leo would have loved this.


For many of us, Leo Bersani was a foundational figure not in terms of foci of interests but in terms of how thinking can move. He showed us what is available to thought.


I wish Leo had had time to write about Ingmar Bergman. Or Woody Allen’s and Pedro Almodóvar’s later work, the saturated melodrama of Café Society and the boisterous silliness of I’m So Excited. He really should have written about late ABBA, the darkness of The Visitors and “The Day Before You Came.” It wasn’t to be. Long-awaited darkness fell.


The last time I saw Leo, he couldn’t take his eyes off the sky. “What an astonishing day,” he kept saying, riveted to the cloudless Arizona expanses, as we—he and Sam and I—were having a wet lunch outside. I think he was, as he would have put it in his analysis of Bruno Dumont’s film Humanité, staring: immobilized by a fascination with the irredeemable world. This was a fascination that did not seek to dismantle the object so as to plunder its secrets. It was an availability to a fathomable otherness, what on the last page of Thoughts and Things he calls “nonfamilial familiarity.” He was always throwing his arms around the world.

Mikko Tuhkanen is professor of English at Texas A&M University.

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