Suspicion of Binaries; or, A Problem in Greek Methods

Sometime in the fall at Princeton, while conversationally performing in front of a dining-hall audience, I found myself solemnly intoning the injunction, “Remember to always be suspicious of binaries.” The gravity and earnestness with which I’d made that remark turned it into a catchphrase, a fact which I capitalized on as I continued to use it to undergird anything I had to say about queer theory and/or the history of sexuality for the rest of the semester. I also played a game last term of trying to see how often I could work the phrase, or variations on it, into my tutorial essays. I’m proud to say I was largely successful.

And so, after all that, it is rather perturbing that binaries seem to be undergirding a lot of the ideas central to Emily “Suspicious of Binaries” Rutherford’s JP. So much about the development of male homosexuality in Victorian context seems to be best expressed as dualities: there are the “Two Loves” of Wilde trials fame, the double lives led by men who acted clandestinely on their desire for other men, and the concept of “double-mindedness” which was popular in pre-Freudian psychological conceptions of homosexuality, and is discussed a lot by Symonds in his Memoirs. (The psychoanalytic binary is one that you can deconstruct, as Whitney Davis does in a cool book called Queer Beauty that I read yesterday: people like Symonds seem at the same time to have conceived of their sexual desires as regressive in the Freudian sense but also progressive, on whose basis it was possible to found a freer, more democratic society. Symonds didn’t express it that way, though, so the binary still holds.) In the wider culture, and in cultural criticism as the Victorians practiced it, there is the wildly popular Arnoldian dialectic of Hellenism and Hebraism; and there are also two competing notions of what “Hellenism” means to Victorian culture, as Linda Dowling discusses in Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford: the martial, imperial, virtuous, Republic sense, the Arnold-and-Jowett sense; or the sensuous, boy-loving, Phaedrus sense used as a basis on which to argue for the ethical goodness of same-sex love in the 19th century. This last binary lends itself particularly to suspicion: the myth of Achilles and Patroclus bridges the two Hellenisms, for instance; furthermore, there is a strong argument to be made that there are at least three Hellenisms, if not more, as the Hellenism in which Symonds finds space to justify homoerotic desire has a lot more in common with Arnold’s and Jowett’s rather prescriptive understandings of culture and ethics and what the Greeks had to do with them than it does with the consciously sexualized Winckelmannian tradition that seems to attract Pater and to a certain extent Wilde.

It is in being suspicious of this last binary in particular that I, too, find myself of two minds: re-reading Dowling yesterday for the first time since the very beginning of this project, before I knew half of what I know now about Victorian intellectual culture and sexuality’s place within it, I found myself wondering about the political implications of placing Symonds so polemically in the Arnold/Jowett camp. Writing in 1994, Dowling understandably goes the other way—tying Symonds together with Pater as Wilde’s two key influences (which, to be fair, they probably were, but in a more dialectical way than Dowling’s equation suggests), and slotting all three writers into a teleological, liberationist story of the development of homosexuality. When I first happened upon Symonds, almost two years ago now, I wholeheartedly believed this teleology, and in fact it’s what drew me to Symonds. I loved the idea of someone creating the language of homosexuality, of practically bringing it out of the closet, and like Dowling could see a lot of parallels between the culture Symonds creates seemingly out of whole cloth and the matrix of today’s gay male culture.

But now, I think, I’ve come to be as suspicious of teleologies as I am of binaries—and just as I’ve gone off pouring my energy into state-by-state same-sex-marriage politics, I’ve gone off thinking that Symonds is some kind of Victorian Harvey Milk, or even some kind of equally-easily-canonized Wildean martyr à la Ellmann’s biography. Instead, I find myself believing that writing the kind of history I want to write involves understanding what it meant to be like a Victorian and to think like a Victorian, and therefore doing that kind of thinking myself. I no longer know, then, whether the work Symonds did to create a new discourse of homosexuality, and to live within it himself, counts as the Victorian version of gay liberation. I no longer know whether the pathos-ridden desperate seeking that pervades his correspondence with Whitman is about a sort of proto-closet. It might be, or it might not. It’s a bit of a Schroedinger’s Cat syndrome—and if anything is a metaphor for the problems of binaries, surely it is Schroedinger’s poor bedraggled Cat.

Round about the time that I thought it was funny to go round Princeton telling everyone to be suspicious of binaries, I found myself sitting with a friend in the Rocky dining hall late one night, having a minor freakout because I’d been assigned for class to read an essay by Eve Sedgwick that I didn’t understand. That night, what Sedgwick had to say about what she calls “reparative reading” went way over my head, and I cried to my friend about how, after all these years, I still don’t “get” literary theory; the next day in class, I stayed, unusually, mostly silent for a class discussion I felt as if I couldn’t follow. The last day of class, when we were recapping and making connections between all the material we’d covered that semester, I prefaced a comment I made about Sedgwick’s theory of reparative reading with “I still don’t know if I understand what ‘reparative reading’ means, but…” And I felt well and truly at sea.

But. But I had to go to Oxford to learn that being suspicious of binaries isn’t always the most useful permanent state of mind. Sure, it’s nice when you want to make puns by sticking deconstructive slashes into the middle of compound words, and is really quite useful to keep in the back of your mind whenever you find yourself spurred to generalize or be presentist about big categories like women or non-white people or working-class people or, for that matter, homosexual men. But thinking like a Victorian to understand how Victorians thought sometimes means accepting having two loves, being of two minds, organizing ideas according to discrete taxonomies or dialectics. It means knowing that people have embraced Pausanias’s binary of the base and the heavenly loves, or Aristophanes’ story of how we got two sexes, or even Adam and Eve or Darwinian separate spheres. It means reading The Nature of Gothic and Unto This Last even though Ruskin wasn’t too nice to women in Sesame and Lilies. It means (in a metaphor I came up with the other day that I’m rather taken with) standing in the middle of Parks Road with Keble College Chapel on your left and the University Museum of Natural History on your right, knowing that the Victorian Gothic can stand for High-Church reactionary conservatism and the march of scientific progress alike. It means Symonds and Wilde both loved their wives and children, of a fashion, even as they had appallingly little consciousness of what their own quests for self-definition put their families through. It does, to be sure, mean being able to know when a binary is Victorian and when it’s modern, and how to disavow teleologies like Dowling’s that seem largely to be retrospectively and too-neatly constructed.

I still can’t claim to understand Sedgwick. But to me reading non-paranoiacally, reading reparatively, means reading ethically, giving your sources the benefit of the doubt, forgiving them their trespasses, giving them the chance to tell you what they meant. It means knowing that being a late-Victorian critic entails very different thought processes and very different ethical prescriptions to being a critic in the post-poststructuralist age. It means worrying that being suspicious of suspicion just digs you deeper into the critical-theory hole. It means believing that caring for and inhabiting your sources can make you as good a historian as knowing what to say in response when theorists talk. And it means, in addition to being of two minds, that one must be of two times as well: to carry out this project, I must be able to move seamlessly between a Victorian mindset and a 21st-century mindset—to have it both ways, and perhaps to be more credulous than suspicious of both.

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2 thoughts on “Suspicion of Binaries; or, A Problem in Greek Methods

  1. Pingback: Doing the History of Sexuality: A Post for Pride Month « Worthless Drivel

  2. Pingback: A Year in Review: Lessons Learned and Things to Be Done; or, On What Matters « Worthless Drivel

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