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From the Marquis de Sade’s libertine sodomites to Jean Genet’s gay Parisian subculture of saintly Queens, the French literary canon has left an indelible mark on how we in America narrate and conceptualize same-sex desire. So, it may come as a surprise to some when François Cusset contends in The Inverted Gaze (Arsenal Pulp Press) that French literary criticism has largely ignored the queer possibilities of its own canon and that it could learn a thing or two from the American academy. Cusset, a professor of American studies at The University of Paris, acknowledges that the French literary tradition has had no shortage of famous gay and lesbian characters and authors, but argues that the homoerotic tension and defiance of the heteronormative status quo that guides the plot and complicates the characters of so many French classics have gone largely unnoticed.
Calling for a queer re-reading of the French canon, Cusset arms himself with the critical arsenal of American queer theorists such as Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, who he refers to as “Queer Critics,” or “QCs,” a pun on his own last name which is pronounced identically to how the letters Q and C are pronounced in French.
Campy plays on words and double entendres enliven Cusset’s literary analysis and translator David Homel does an admirable job translating his French puns into the irreverent, tongue-in-cheek prose of the text. The playful capacity of camp rhetoric to both mock the status quo and appropriate it for its own queer imagination is crucial to Cusset’s analysis. He sees queer criticism as a break from the stuffy methodology of traditional literary criticism and instead champions the formation of an individual relationship with the text: “We need to learn to take the text, turn it over, penetrate it, play with its sex, slip ours into it, follow it to the end of its fine ambivalence, and force it along the way to assume a position.”
Exhorting us to “read it head to tail to taste that textual sixty-nine,” Cusset draws attention to the intimate, mutual relationship that the reader shares with the text. Guided by his or her predilections, the reader finds in the text a projection of his or her own desires while at the same time, the text penetrates the imagination of the reader and implants it with the eroticism of the author’s own designs. Ultimately, Cusset makes us aware of the fact that any reading of a text is inherently queer because it can never fully align with the exact specifications of meaning that an author intended and that the challenge that queer identities pose to social norms should be an inspiration for contesting conventional textual interpretations.
Cusset rightly identifies that French culture, like all others, rigidly polices the interpretation of their most treasured narratives and cultural mythologies so as to keep them in line with and supporting of present day values and ideologies. Queer criticism challenges this notion that the contemporary cultural norm of heterosexuality can be found according to our present terms in the narratives of the past. The QCs poke what Cusset calls “glory holes” into the texts, finding the cracks and fissures in the dominant edifice of heteronormativity where the seeds of sexual dissidence may be sown. For example, Cusset queers the tales of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot (which were originally written in French), noting that while this mythology has endured for centuries with its descriptions of heroic, masculine ideals, there may have been a game of footsie played among the knights beneath the round table.
In the poetry of Baudelaire, Cusset finds what he terms “pan-eroticism”: a process of “desexualizing organs in order to turn the wider world into an erogenous zone.” While Baudelaire has always had a queer edge to him with his catalogs of the grotesque, Cusset discovers revolutionary potential in his poetry with its desire to abolish the private and personal elements of the erotic and to conceptualize the world as one unified, desiring organism. This is the mission of queer literary criticism. It is not about the identification of closeted gays and lesbians in literature, but it is instead about the complete deconstruction of the idea of identity itself. Cusset’s book does presume that the reader will be familiar with the plots of the French texts that he analyzes and the historical periods in which they appeared, but even for the uninitiated, this book serves as a scintillating baptism by fire for all aspiring queer Francophiles making their first trek into the French literary canon.
The Inverted Gaze: Queering the French Literary Classics in America
By François Cusset
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 9781551524108, 142pp ,