Review: The Weather in Proust

The Weather in Proust. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Jonathan Goldberg, ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi + 222.

Edited by Jonathan Goldberg, Eve Sedgwick’s posthumous text, The Weather in Proust offers a look back at the work of queer theory and affect theory’s most formative practitioners. The introduction is little more than an editor’s note on compilation and composition, with a pair of Sedgwick’s poems setting the tone for the remainder of the book. As the book is a collection of essays pieced together by Goldberg to create a sort of collage representative of the impact Sedgwick’s later career made on academia, it at times feels disjointed and highly associative, rather than linear, in its transitions. But such a web of meaning also happens to reflect the structure of Sedgwick’s own weaving of textile art – which makes up the bulk of the third chapter – as well as the rhizomatic nature of the affect theory that she discusses.

The Weather in Proust is loosely divided into two general sections and a final reflective chapter. Proust, as the title suggests, dominates the first section, comprised of five chapters taken from writings intended by Sedgwick as her culminating work on the French modernist. The first chapter is a close reading of various passages in À la recherche du temps perdu, with a particular investment in the weather as a system with rules, exceptions, and a sort of mysticism all its own. The next two chapters then shift from a close reading of Proust to an engagement with Proustian critique, as Sedgwick builds on the foundation of Proust’s mysticism to read the poetry of Cavafy and her own artwork and personal engagement with Buddhism. The second chapter reminds the reader through its form that the collection of essays is posthumous. “Cavafy, Proust, and the Queer Little Gods” sets up large questions regarding the inconsistencies within the intersections of different divinity fields and Sedgwick herself laments the chapter’s lack of resolution. But with its repetition of lines and paragraphs from the first chapter and its smattering of lucid notions about the totality and mundanity of divinity, this second chapter is still rich, pointing to the promise Sedgwick’s completed book on Proust would have had. The third chapter, perhaps her most personal, “Making Things, Practicing Emptiness,” delves into her tactile artistry and spirituality – two things that, for her, should not be disentangled. The ensuing chapters build on the Buddhist psychology she expounds in this chapter, and so while it feels highly intimate, it also serves as a methodological primer for the remainder of the book.

The book then moves from Sedgwick’s textile artwork and Buddhist ruminations to two densely theoretical chapters on affect. The first sees Sedgwick engaging personally with the writing of Melanie Klein, meditating on the associative understandings she has had with the theorist’s work as a kind of affective response itself. More critically, this chapter turns from her Foucauldian and Freudian readings and applications of queer theory in the nineties toward the Kleinian/Proustian model of affective queer theory of the opening chapters. As a literary critic, Sedgwick seems to be tired of the stringent limitations inherent in the power structures of Foucault and the overly determined gender/genital binaries of Freud. Thus, “The Difference Affect Makes” posits just that: the study of individual affective response can help critics to investigate the mechanisms of human behavior and experience with more flexibility.

By pairing the above chapter with the second chapter on affect theory, “Affect Theory and Theory of Mind,” Sedgwick moves both queer theory and literary criticism as far away from totalizing structures as possible. While her first chapter on affect theory predominantly addresses Melanie Klein, the second chapter focuses on Silvan Tomkins. Sedgwick locates her initial interest in Tomkins, which would later manifest in her turn toward affect, as happening in conjunction with the first axiom that appeared in The Epistemology of the Closet: “people are different from each other.” Though simple, almost banal, this axiom sets up the larger discussion that Sedgwick explores in this chapter. For her, as for Tomkins, affect theory embraces the fact that no two people have precisely the same mind. Affect is thus more generative critically because it does not presuppose universal application like the theories of Foucault and Freud. For Sedgwick, Tomkins “made a case for affect as the system that uniquely mediates between the imperceptibly fugitive, almost impersonal nuance of a feeling, at one extreme and, at the other, the most inveterate bent of a lifetime’s motive and style of being, thinking, and relating” (145). Sedgwick’s affective reaction to her discovery of Tomkins’s work acts as a sort of reverse madeleine; rather than rushing her back to the past as Proust’s pastry did for him, Tomkins’s theory of affect offers a future for critique, one she would go on to promote.

The third section of the collected essays focuses predominantly on queer theory, beginning with the chapter “Anality: News from the Front,” which Goldberg believes contains the final sentence that Sedgwick ever wrote. The essay takes on two texts that appropriate and misuse the language and work of Guy Hocquenghem. After thoroughly setting up the scene in which Hocquenghem wrote, Sedgwick critiques texts by Jeffrey Guss and Stephen Boticelli, which misapply the “dangers of anality” regarded as revolutionarily dangerous in Hocquenghem’s time, not a danger to be avoided, as Guss and Boticelli presume. Though not a direct invocation of affect theory, the very language highlights a thread of affective response on the part of Sedgwick as she both reads and writes. She describes her visceral reactions in terms of the body: Boticelli’s work “shut [her] up” and was “paralyzing” to her (177). This moment is but one example of Sedgwick’s full embodiment and application of affective language. And yet, this chapter also serves to consolidate? her position within queer theory discussions; though she may have turned to affect, she has not left queer theory behind.

The second and third chapters in this section on queer theory are transcriptions of talks given in France and in Japan, respectively. Products of speeches written toward non-Anglo-American audiences, they offer a rich perspective on the Western construction and deconstruction of the term “queer.” In “Making Gay Meanings,” Sedgwick offers a concrete list of possible variations of gender and sexuality. Though by no means exhaustive, as she points out, this chapter feels more grounded than the rest of the book, heavy on theory. Sedgwick writes that “queer” can refer to “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses, and excess of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (189). This chapter and the one that succeeds, entitled “Thinking Through Queer Theory,” while somewhat dated since composed around the turn of the new millennium, offer a look back to the queer theory of the late nineties and the then-nascent affect theory.

The final chapter of the book, “Reality and Realization,” is a reworking of a reworking; its origins reach back to 1998. It appears in this book in its original framework as a speech, opening with the line “Somewhere in the background of this talk is a project I’ve had in mind…” (206). As a reader, one does feel very much as if a one-on-one conversation with Sedgwick has taken place, which lends all the more to the transgressive nature of her writing. Despite the lofty ideas that the book tackles, it feels academic in neither a distant nor inaccessible sense. In these closing remarks, the critic returns to Buddhism to tease out the difference between knowing and realizing. Comparing Eastern spirituality and the critical school of deconstruction in their opposition to dualism, Sedgwick highlights the familiarity of Buddhism to the secular critically minded audience to whom she both speaks and writes. Ultimately, she asserts that there is a real difference, even a temporal distance, between knowing a thing and realizing it (that is, bringing it to reality). While this final chapter makes no mention of affect and predates the other chapters in the collection that discuss the theory, its impression is still felt. Though this collection of essays, unfinished chapters, and lectures only singles out affect theory in two pieces, these snippets from across Sedgwick’s career expose the influence that affect theory was leaving all along.

Hannah Widdifield