The College Years of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Founder of Queer Theory

By: Linda B. Glaser,  A&S Communications

The advent of queer theory “caused a shock wave which has affected all intellectual disciplines,” as Didier Eribon, a leading French intellectual, once said. A look back at the undergraduate years of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘71, a founder of queer theory, reveals a unique glimpse of where that shock wave first began.

When Sedgwick arrived at Cornell in 1967, she had yet to make her mark on the literary world. Still, says English professor emeritus Neil Hertz, one of Sedgwick’s undergraduate professors at Cornell and a lifelong friend, Sedgwick was already a pretty remarkable young woman — though very shy.

“My chief memory of her right from the start is that she practically never said a word in class.” He adds that “it was kind of stunning to see this apparently timid person producing papers that were telling me things about these books that I hadn’t understood and realizing, my God, this woman really knows what she’s talking about.”

Ellis Hanson, professor of English, says that Sedgwick “joked that she always came to class with x-ray vision that enabled her to see all the faults in everything her Cornell teachers said.” Yet she nevertheless appreciated the faculty: she wrote in “The Epistemology of the Closet” that “at the infamous Cornell of the infamous late sixties I was privileged to have teachers who invested in both texts and students their most trenchant passions.” She adds that Cornell professor Allan Bloom taught her “the urgencies and pleasures of reading against the visible grain of any influential text.”

Even as an undergraduate, Hertz says, Sedgwick was “a hell of a writer.” Her papers showed the same character as her later books, and, he says, “were written with a kind of flair and boldness of imagination.”

Sedgwick also wrote a great deal of poetry as an undergraduate, some of which appeared in Cornell’s literary magazines. Hanson says that the poems published in “Epoch” were “very edgy” regarding gender issues.
Hertz speculates that Sedgwick felt somewhat marginalized as a poet at Cornell. The leading writer of poetry on campus at the time was A.R. Ammons, who had gathered around himself a circle of chiefly male poets.

“Part of her brilliance was a function of her courage about those things about herself that weren’t going to get her into ‘People Magazine.’ ”

 

“There are certain advantages emotionally and intellectually to being marginalized,” Hertz points out. “Part of her brilliance was a function of her courage about those things about herself that weren’t going to get her into ‘People Magazine,’ ” like being Jewish, a woman, and fat (Sedgwick objected to euphemisms like “overweight”). Her interest in gay men arose from the question of how to deal with marginalization and its perils. Hanson adds that Sedgwick “appreciated the paradox and difficulty of being at once in and out, opaque and exposed, ambiguous and frank, sexually disengaged and sexually astute, at peace with confusion and astonishingly lucid.”

“People are different from each other,” Sedgwick wrote in “The Epistemology of the Closet,” a deceptively simple statement that underlay her literary theory as well as her life. “She had the intellectual strength and confidence that she could say something that simple and not be afraid,” says Hertz.

Sedgwick joined Telluride House while at Cornell, having participated in a Telluride Association summer program during high school. Hertz describes Telluride House as a “non-fraternity fraternity” that “picked people for their intellectual value.” Because women had only recently been allowed to join, Telluride House was a strongly masculine environment, and it proved a rich vein of experience for Sedgwick to mine in her explorations of homosociality. Hertz feels that “all the things she came to write about were present in her life by the time she was 18: feeling marginalized, thinking of herself as a woman, and seeing how revulsion and attraction worked around her.”

Telluride House had another kind of impact on Sedgwick; it was there she met fellow member Hal Sedgwick. They married when Sedgwick was 19, and lived together in a commune in the countryside, commuting to classes at Cornell.

Her scholarly work…was all about an outsider’s ethics and erotics of care and community in the midst of violence, hostility, ignorance, or neglect.

 

Hanson recalls Sedgwick saying once, after a long silence, “People are fragile.” He says that “the simplicity and poignancy of the remark summed up for me the generous humanity of her scholarly work, which was all about an outsider’s ethics and erotics of care and community in the midst of violence, hostility, ignorance, or neglect. Whether she was talking about a medical crisis like AIDS or breast cancer, or about the subtleties of sexual self-articulation in the work of Henry James and Oscar Wilde, she had a deep appreciation for the essential fragility of people, the precariousness of their lives, of their health, of their dignity, and of their bonds with others.”
Sedgwick died on April 12, 2009, after an 18-year battle with cancer. She was 58.

Student Poetry by Eve Sedgwick

The following poems by Eve Kosofsky appeared from 1968–1969 in “Trojan Horse,” a student literary magazine at Cornell.

Siegfried Rex von Munthe, Soldier and Poet, Killed December, 1939, on the Graf Spee

If man is no more
Than a creaky fishnet
Around some sea,
What is the power
Of my father’s death
So to stun me?

Heartbeaten tides
Have washed him over;
Yet here am I still
In the teeming medium
Older only,
The struggling last

Plasmic mortal
Of his death’s vast
And voided realm;
Only remembering
Twenty years
After his storm

The new-coined blindness
Of an afternoon
In the spangled nursery:
Copying in
Fourfold precision
His glittering every

Poem and letter.
What death then was
Felt of the sunflecked
Morsels alighting
Within the dappling
Nursery checks

Of the son’s heart,
Or after the sun fell,
Quilt-covert fantasies:
The trifling poet
Of the deft and sordid
Parcels despair

For the sun to steal
In quantum digestibles, You, father,
Being a poet,
Would understand
The fractioned thought,

Of mankind blinded
But for the magician-
Poet at the window
Of the floodlit nursery,
Seeing light conjoined
Or discrete as dew

Bubbling and falling
On vestigial fragments
Of paternal bones.
Deceitful atoms beam
Piecemeal on the seafloor. Eyeless fool: then know

That the same poetry —
All we know of mercy —
Kept for you Germany,
Brought you to
This last filtering ocean
Defending tyranny

And into vastness
Humanly, flimsily.
That was our poetry too,
And all our beauty
Ephemeral necessity
Stunned to virtue.

Lawrence of Arabia and the Old Man, his Invented Tormentor

As if Arabia were a broad-leaved book
And the rest of his life had been the merest tenets
Of its philosophies, he cocked his head
Like a child in bed, and curiously invented
A logical machine of storybook torture
That ran on lies to friends and ended with
The physical rod, on certain anniversaries
But when he took the book in his dry hand
It became cold and hard, a scimitar
In the hand of the Old Man. It ought to have cut
His husk of manhood. What a machine! He was left
His anniversaries, again, and stood
Without the book he turned to in his sleep.
Suicide is a machine. Arabia
Uncurls her terms like an absurd equation;
The silent Wailing Wall; or a Buddha’s palms.

The Ring of Fire

Apollo 1 Fire, February 1967

Inside the capsule rolled up in a babyish ball
He had started to emerge by the escape-hatch
Into the natural world of natural accident
Because the whole thing happened rather slowly.
It took him several seconds to realize
What harm his desire to see the moon had done him,
And even seeing how he was going to die
He didn’t see at once that it was a tragedy,
Only that it was as high as he would get;
And something pressed upon him quickly and brightly

And now he sees the fire and being inside it
Is like a dentist who has crushed a tooth
That lies along the gum in rosy shards,
But must to the gagged child whisper from the height
Of a taught fatherly vision, firmly, “You’re all right.”

Queer Theory defined

Ellis Hanson, a professor of English at Cornell, defines the queer theory that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick helped found:

“Queer theory is the radical deconstruction of sexual rhetoric. It has sought to develop links between various forms of progressive activism (the lesbian and gay movement, the women’s movement, HIV/AIDS activism, and movements for racial justice, among others), and the analytical rigor of poststructuralism (especially that of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man) with respect to the problematic of sexuality.

“Although it takes as foundational its insights into the instability of language and the historical contingency of sexuality, queer theory is not a unified doctrine or political agenda, but a highly mobile practice of imminent critique that draws its form and content from the shifting rhetoric of sexual politics. It interrogates the binaristic thinking that has traditionally characterized sexual politics, in particular such familiar oppositions as heterosexuality/homosexuality, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, closeted/out, center/margin, conscious/unconscious, nature/culture, and normal/pathological, to name a few. It has also sought to bring sexual politics, in particular anti-homophobic critique, to the fore of intellectual debate.

“As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has written, ‘an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition,’ especially from the ‘relatively decentered perspective of modern gay and anti-homophobic theory.’”

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