Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

In “The Beast in the Closet: James and the Writing of Homosexual Panic,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick observes a literary transition from the Frankensteinian paranoid Gothic hero to the figure of the closeted bourgeois bachelor, whose character is marked by relative independence from nuclear kinship, avoidance of genital sexuality, and emphasis on non-sexual sensory pleasures (Epistemology 192). Sedgwick attributes the pervasive male homosexual panic to the simultaneously compulsory and transgressive homosocial bonding under patriarchy. She takes particular interest in the bachelor’s “explicitly thematized sexual anesthesia” (Epistemology 194), such as John Marcher’s failure to reciprocate May Bartram’s love in The Beast in the Jungle (1903), as indicative of latent homosexual desire. While Sedgwick’s analysis effectively combats the erasure of queerness in the reception of Henry James, many have taken issue with her direct translation of absent heterosexuality into homosexuality. In Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (2013), Benjamin Kahan coins the term “expressive hypothesis” to critique this preclusion of modes of desire that do not “aspire to normative sexual acts” (5). However, Kahan’s “celibacy,” as an alternative to expressive sexualities, though expansive, overlooks queer potential in ostensibly transparent quests for normative relationships, such as in the case of The American (1877).

In the novel, self-made American businessman Christopher Newman travels to Paris for enjoyment, and attempts to obtain high taste by seeking the hand of Madame de Cintré, widowed daughter of the aristocratic Bellegardes. Accustomed to wielding the cosmopolitan power of material wealth, Newman struggles to navigate the European world in which sexuality, social status, and the performance of cultural distinction are inextricably linked. Perceived as simultaneously straight and closeted, prudish and promiscuous, self-centred and self-ignorant, Newman’s predicament resonates with many who identify with asexuality: it is less defined by homosexual panic or celibacy than by establishing a selfhood recognizable in the world of taste, self-fashioning, and compulsory sexuality. 

I propose reading this early Jamesian novel through an asexual lens, which posits non-sexual queerness not as a set of abstinent conduct, but as an orientation towards hegemonic sexual paradigms in a manner that captures the particularities of Newman’s experience of otherness. Asexuality is by no means a pathological manifestation of Newman’s cultural illiteracy, but rather a circumstance created by his encounter with the symbolic system of taste-sexuality. I will begin with an overview of the burgeoning asexual literary analysis, and proceed to: 

  1. establish the entanglement of cultural distinction and sexuality through analyzing the book’s most homoerotic relationship, and argue Newman’s undiscriminating artistic appetite, while associating him with non-normative desiring modes, distinguishes him from the gay-coded travelling companion Babcock
  2. examine the self-ignorant image of the asexual in Newman’s transnational encounter with Parisian social-climber Noémie Nioche and his failed marital quest, in order to challenge the idea of sexuality as the privileged site of self-knowledge
  3. investigate Newman’s lack of attention to the self in contrast with Valentin’s self-aware theatricality, especially regarding how shame as a powerful affect shapes Newman’s position within the game of aristocratic pretense and social recognition

Framing Asexual Analysis

As with all modern sexualities, the history of non-sexual queers far preceded asexuality as a contemporary identity label. Kahan posits “celibacy,” dating back to Byzantine in the first millennium, as an addition to David Halperin’s quartet of pre-homosexual discourses (effeminacy, “active” sodomy, friendship, inversion). Associated with but nonetheless distinct from “friendship,” celibacy could be read as simultaneously a performance of homosexual love and absence of sexual desire (34). Shortly after Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ coinage of the terms “Urning” (a man attracted to men) and “Dioning” (a woman attracted to women) in 1862, their less sexual counterparts were acknowledged by American writer Ralph Werther as “anaphrodites,” and later in Alfred Kinsey’s research as the “X” group who reported no socio-sexual contacts or reactions (143). From the 1970s to the 1990s, “asexuality” became visible in feminist discussions, popular media, biographical writing, and research. The founding of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN)—the most prominent asexual platform to this day—by American activist David Jay in 2001 marked the beginning of online asexual discourse. Several developments in the 2010s shifted the basis of asexual identification from behaviour to subjective experience: removal of lack of sexual desire from the list of mental disorders in DSM-5 (2013); increasingly nuanced, anti-bioessentialist discussions of gender; and the birth of the “split-attraction model,” which recognizes sexual attraction and romantic attraction as distinct categories tenuously linked to sexual/romantic acts. According to AVEN, an asexual is someone who “does not experience sexual attraction and/or desire or only experiences sexual attraction and/or desire in a limited way,” although anyone who feels aligned with asexuality (even those who deviate from the former description) should feel free to identify as such. 

This paradigm shift from behaviour to experience informed my decision to use asexuality instead of celibacy as the preferred analytical framework. Despite arguing for celibacy as a “reiterative desire” rather than a singular sexual act (152), Kahan nevertheless bases his analysis in the abstinent conduct of literary and historical figures. In contrast, asexuality captures Newman’s casual estrangement from the symbolic system of taste-sexuality, not as a choice or fundamental “lack,” but as a socio-cultural circumstance that speaks to the alienating nature of the regime of compulsory sexuality. 

Another limitation of Kahan’s framing is his reformulation of celibacy as a distinct sexuality with its own practices and pleasures. Admittedly, normalizing non-sexual queerness as another sexual orientation is socially generative and important to individuals whose experiences are often invalidated. However, I am inclined to view asexuality as a more potent critical paradigm when conceived of “as an orientation toward—as opposed to a sexual orientation that is legible within—the domain of sexuality” (Snaza 123). Conceptualizing asexuality as yet another sexual orientation that functions under the racialized biopolitical production of sexuality and sexual difference (Ferguson 4-10) debilitates asexuality’s potential to unsettle the assumption of sexuality as a universal marker of humanity. Asexuals have long been illegitimate and considered non-human (robots, aliens, amoebae), embodying what Edelman identifies as death drive, “figural repository for what the structural logic of [hetero-patriarchal futurity politics’] articulation is destined to foreclose” (27). Edelman urges us to accede to this abject position, since assimilation into the predominant social order, even if successful, would only uphold the exclusive regime of sexuality and displace the figural burden of non-humanity onto less legible lives. 

Yet one should not assume embracing queer abjection dispels hierarchies among individuals who are subject to intersecting regimes of race, class, gender, and cross-regional discrepancies. In Queer Phenomenology (2006), Sara Ahmed reminds us that “colonialism makes the world ‘white,’ which is of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach” (111, qtd. Snaza 130). While understanding Newman through an asexual lens informs the general experience of being “other,” we must bear in mind that Newman’s humanity is never questioned; his poor taste and ignorance, though ridiculed, usually retain legitimacy as representing the American national type. Both Newman’s asexuality, as well as the largely Euro-American centred formulation of asexuality itself, hail from a privileged position of whiteness, which is what enabled his pecuniary success in the U.S. and journey to Europe for cosmopolitan cultivation in the first place. 

Appetite, Aberration, and the Asexual Closet

The inextricable link between cultural distinction and sexuality is established early on in the book: Parisian copyist Noémie Nioche’s quest for upward class mobility through marriage is achieved by her mimicry of aristocratic conduct, and Newman’s project of self-cultivation is contingent on his pursuit of Madame de Cintré’s hand in marriage. A reader who unwittingly follows Sedgwick might mistake Newman’s failed marital venture as indicative of latent homosexuality, but as we circumvent the trap of “expressive hypothesis,” it becomes apparent that Newman’s secret in the closet, of which he himself is unaware, is the fact that he has nothing to hide. To better examine this symbolic system of taste-sexuality, we will focus on two Americans’ encounters with it: Newman’s undiscriminating appetite for art associates him with both non-normative desires and heterosexual performance, which confounds and disturbs the articulate, gay-coded Bostonian minister Babcock. 

Babcock resembles a gay man who, though disconcerted by the licentious, heterosexual Europe, is nonetheless attuned to its language of taste-sexuality. Babcock’s relationship with Newman is one that most closely resembles romantic entanglement: Newman regards Babcock as “the nearest approach to [Madame de Cintré]”, both made desirable by their embodiment of taste (90).1 Babcock’s initial knowledge of “‘European’ evils” comes from his Parisian college classmate’s illicit affair. Unfortunately for Babcock, “he had what he called an intimate sense of the true beautiful in life,” and realized this element was found in what he sees as the “unscrupulous and impure” “European” life (67). Therefore, Europe for Babcock represents high taste as well as heterosexual promiscuity; artistic taste is translated into literal appetite, which then takes on more carnal implications: Babcock suffers from indigestion and has to seek out an American establishment to purchase hominy and Graham bread, food from home that does not affront his senses. It should be noted that, although Babcock frames distaste through the America-Europe dichotomy, such talks are often put in quotations by James, and Newman’s deviance further dismantles the imagined unity of “American taste.” Hence, national types in this context are better understood as signifying relational differences rather than predetermined natures. 

Babcock’s exquisite sensibilities contrast Newman’s lawlessly excessive and undiscriminating appetite, rendering both of them suspects of aberration, if not outright sodomy (Elfenbein 17). Sensibility was often attributed, though not exclusively, to women and aristocrats since the eighteenth century; for other individuals who reacted just as strongly to the beautiful and the foul, this ability was associated with effeminacy and artistic distinction. Babcock embodies effeminacy and asceticism/celibacy in a manner not uncommon for the nineteenth-century queer bachelor. James himself believed his singleness enabled him to observe human life without getting tangled up in it, and has been portrayed as effeminate partly due to his inability to consummate heterosexual desire (Kahan 52). Yet given effeminacy’s relationship with same-sex desire was uncertain at best, it is Babcock’s ability to understand the taste-sexuality system that marks his queerness as distinctly sexual while Newman’s is not. Nevertheless, Babcock is not wrong in identifying Newman’s excessive appetite as queer. Andrew Elfenbein offers two models of gender-sexuality in eighteenth-century England that largely ruled the West until psychiatry took over: the more recent civil humanism saw genders as distinct and same-sex desires as betraying gender roles (sodomite as feminine man and sapphist as masculine woman), while the Aristotelian civic humanism (republicanism) saw vice as excess and suggested both genders should practice restraint and moderation (20). 

Naturally, Babcock takes Newman’s excess as a suggestion for homoerotic potential, only to find it a clownish imitation of the heterosexual-coded European sensibility. Newman cannot tell the florid from the refined; his tastes are impersonal like monetary accumulation—“as vague and loose as if he had earned them in his trousers pocket” (81), causing him to “often have been seen…gazing with culpable serenity at inferior productions” (65). In a letter to his Parisian-American friend Mrs. Tristram, Newman features his journey as a grotesque feast of cultural information swallowed without being savoured: “Wherever [in the travelling handbook] you find a scratch or a cross or a ‘Beautiful!’ or a ‘So true!’ or a ‘Too thin!’ you may know that I’ve had some one or other of the sensations I was after…Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Italy—I’ve taken the whole list as the bare-backed rider takes the paper hoops at the circus, and I’m not even yet out of breath” (75). 

Babcock, dyspeptic in a world of European heterosexuality and initially hopeful of Newman’s distinct lack of heterosexual artistic sensibility, is scandalized by such display of gluttony, “that this promiscuous feeder [Newman] at the feast could swallow with no wry face” (67). The poor minister attempts to coax Newman’s artistic taste into form, but “never afterwards recognized his gifts among the articles that Newman had in daily use” (69). While the European influences are stronger than Babcock’s, Newman’s digestion of those also comes out perverted; his aesthetic pursuit becomes a campy, impersonal parody of heterosexual taste. Disappointed in Newman’s aberrant appetite that fails to promise homoerotic potential, Babcock says, “I’m afraid I didn’t do justice to [Milanese artist] Luini…I’m afraid I went too far about him. I don’t think he’s as true as he at first seems.” To which Newman obliviously responds, “There’s something in the look of his genius that’s like the face of a beautiful woman” (70). Babcock winces and parts ways with Newman, interpreting the statement as a sign of overt heterosexuality and crude taste. However, what the statement really reveals is the hegemonic sexual regime’s conflation of artistic distinction with sexuality and Newman’s cluelessness regarding either. The erotic significance of describing Luini’s work as a beautiful woman eludes Newman, leading him to offend Babcock again (and for the last time) by mailing a suggestive statue of an ascetic monk (72). 

Ironically, while Babcock criticizes Newman for putting “a kind of reckless finality into [his] pleasures” (71), Babcock’s successor, an English traveler, accuses Newman of incapability to enjoy life. Both of them refer to Newman’s undiscriminating taste, one to his lack of principle and the other to his lack of appreciation for the particularities of style. Even when same-sex desires are taken into consideration, asexuality remains illegible and can only be registered as “other” or mistaken for latent homosexuality. Consequently, Newman is perplexed like the typical asexual who is perceived as simultaneously promiscuous and prudish, straight and queer: “Which one of these two critics should I listen to?” (75) 

“American” Ignorance, Asexual Self-Knowledge

Newman’s bewilderment at his two critics’ words leads us smoothly to the discussion of his sense of self. In The History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault demonstrates that “modern Western culture has placed what it calls sexuality in a more and more distinctively privileged relation to our most prized constructs of individual identity, truth, and knowledge” (Sedgwick Epistemology 3). Navigating a world where taste and sexuality collapse into one another, Newman’s being “rather baffled on the aesthetic question” (3)—by extension the sexual question—manifests as a lack of self-knowledge in his transnational encounters with social climber Noémie Nioche and his aristocratic love-interest Madame de Cintré. 

Although there is Babcock to represent the American of taste and self-knowledge, Newman’s cultural illiteracy and blind confidence in monetary power is nevertheless packaged as “American” ignorance in contrast with the self-aware Europe. Unable to tell the fine from the foul, nor read sexual subtexts into emulative gestures, Newman tends to fall back to the almost infantile belief in purchase power and Protestant work ethic, imposing on older national borders and class divisions a new form of hegemony contingent on the cosmopolitan circulation of capital. However, Newman’s self-ignorance is not an innate character trait, but a result of his encounter with what Ela Przybylo calls the “sexual imperative,” which assumes “lack of knowledge about the object of one’s desire as self-ignorance” (Adler 100). The kind of self-knowledge Newman struggles to obtain is only made necessary by the overarching demand for self-understanding through taste-sexuality.  

Newman’s interactions with his foil, the socially ambitious young copyist Noémie, exemplifies Newman’s failed attempt to impose the capitalist spirit on the confounding world of artistic distinction. Newman’s first contact with Europe sees him entranced by Noémie working on a copy of the Madonna in the Louvre. James takes pains to emphasize Noémie’s “great deal of vivid by-play, a great standing off with folded arms and head dropping from side to side, stroking of a dimpled chin with a dimpled hand…accompanied by a far-straying glance, which tripped up, occasionally, as it were, on the tall arrested gentleman” (3). She is an inadequate painter, but a brilliant copyist of attractive, tasteful demeanor. Noémie’s scheme seems to have worked out when Newman, with his limited French vocabulary, abruptly demands, “Combien?” Despite the question’s hint at sexual transaction, it becomes clear that Newman wants the mediocre painting, not the actual commodity for sale that is Noémie’s person. When Noémie’s father exposes her scheme, Newman prefers to believe this is an unjust accusation of Noémie’s character, and promises to pay for her dowry to help her marry respectably, on the condition that Noémie finishes the copies he has paid for. Newman naïvely assumes money is all one needs to gain social distinction, and wants to make sure that industriousness and perseverance—in this case, Noémie showing “beaucoup d’industrie” by completing his paintings—would reward her with fortune as they did him. Noémie is surprised and irritated “to see a clever man so bête,” and tells Newman the paintings he bought from her are grotesque (60). She laughs at Newman’s delusion that monetary support is all she needs to marry into a distinguished household, which is also a jab at Newman’s own ambition to marry Madame de Cintré with nothing to offer but his wealth. 

Noémie’s self-knowledge comes from her understanding of the taste-sexuality system, which contrasts with Newman’s apprehension of the external world that renders him incapable of articulating his own image and desires. As a true cosmopolitan who believes his identity established through pecuniary success in New York would remain just as well-esteemed in Paris, Newman regards any cultural distinction he hopes to acquire—translated through the taste-sexuality system into the form of an aristocratic wife—as “a lovely being perched on the pile like some shining statue crowning some high monument” (37), enough to entertain but not transform him: “He believed serenely that Europe was made for him and not he for Europe” (63). 

Newman’s confidence in monetary power to reduce every aspect of life into commodity at his disposal, including Claire de Cintré whom he courts, strikes one as almost innocently narcissistic like an infant, whom, unable to distinguish the self from the other, assumes its caregiver’s powers as its own omnipotence. A young, melancholic widow living in the shadows of her tyrannic mother and old brother, Claire is the epitome of fine taste: for the less articulate, “[Madame de Cintré] is as plain as a copy in a copy-book…A man of [Newman’s] large appetite would swallow her down without tasting her” (54). Newman pursues her to prove to his tasteful acquaintances that he has, if not the forms, then the instincts of high civilisation (3), that he could reject his childish fascination with Noémie’s extravagant mimicry of Louvre paintings to obtain the finesse required of a Man. 

Indeed, such infantilizing language has been widely applied to deny asexual people’s feelings and self-knowledge. If one were to pronounce sex or normative sexual relations undesirable, they would be deemed “too young to meet the right one,” or “too immature know their own feelings.” The sexual imperative, sometimes perpetrated by a naïve reading of Freudian psychoanalysis, assumes full-fledged subjectivity cannot be without sexuation; therefore, asexuality is construed as an infantile, undeveloped state that precedes proper subject formation. 

Although it is important to recognize asexuality does not preclude knowledge of one’s (a)sexuality, such knowledge is less than relevant to a subject who does not function under the sexual regime. Even when the asexual subject is exposed to compulsory sexuality, the conflict might manifest in other forms—in Newman’s case cultural difference and taste—therefore failing to produce knowledge of one’s (a)sexuality. A most illustrative example is James’ The Beast in the Jungle (1903), which portrays the need for asexual self-knowledge as a result of the asexual subject’s encounter with heteronormativity and compulsory sexuality. John Marcher is haunted by a sense of foreboding, and can do nothing but wait for this terrible fate that is the “Beast” to arrive with his best friend May Bartram, until it is revealed that missing out on life and Bartram’s love for him is the blight he has been dreading. In “The Beast Imperative,” Nick Adler acutely points out that the Beast is an effect of Bartram’s entrance into Marcher’s life, that before Bartram, Marcher has lived a life of asexuality without recognizing it as signaling beastliness; asexuality becomes “huge and hideous” only when subjected to the sexual imperative (104). Similarly, Newman’s ignorance of taste-sexuality was never a problem back in America, it is in Europe that he becomes a confounding presence to both others and himself. 

Performance and Shame

A consequence of Newman’s self-ignorance is his disregard for self-presentation and social perception. The specific brand of performance demanded by Parisian aristocracy is rooted in cultural distinction, and therefore necessitated by compulsory sexuality. Newman’s lack of concern for appearance renders him not only contemptible, but also manipulable to the villainous Marquise de Bellegarde and her eldest son Urbain. Their world, though more refined than Newman’s in which art and people are mere commodities, nevertheless dehumanizes participants in its conflation of people and art—self-fashioning and performance of cultural distinction become necessary to establishing a recognized selfhood. Newman’s love-interest Claire de Cintré, embodying finesse to the extent that she is likened to “a statue that has failed as cold stone, resigned itself to its defects and come to life as flesh and blood” (108), is incapacitated by and eventually condemned to symbolic death by consanguineal kinship. Her younger brother and Newman’s friend Valentin de Bellegarde, a queer-coded bachelor who is cynical of but nevertheless attuned to the taste-sexuality system, meets his death in maintaining aristocratic hetero-masculinity. In this game of pretense where identity is at stake, shame, as a disrupted moment of identificatory communication that endangers social acceptance (Sedgwick Touching Feeling 36), factors powerfully into Newman’s failure to avenge the siblings against the evil Marquise. 

The sociable Valentin closely resembles Sedgwick’s portrayal of the closeted bachelor, a role that highlights the performative aspect of hetero-masculinity. In his aversion to nuclear kinship and exaggerated interest in marriage that never bears fruit, “[the bachelor] is compulsively garrulous about marital prospects, his own (past and present) among others, but always in a tone that points, in one way or another, to the absurdity of the thought” (Sedgwick 190). Valentin invests passionately in helping Newman court Claire, out of both the homosocial desire to make Newman his kin and the desire to cover up his own disinterest in marriage. This queer-coded performance of sexuality is entangled with Valentin’s aristocracy. Like Sedgwick’s bachelor as a transitional figure from Gothic paranoia to modern anxiety, Valentin straddles the Gothic and the urban novel, is tempted by prospects in the New World (asks to follow Newman into business after Claire’s marriage) but also attached to his aristocratic selfhood. When asked why he is willing to help Newman gain Claire’s hand, Valentin hints at his family’s villainy and his own dissent: “I’m in the Opposition [to my family]…Old races have strange secrets!” (117) Similarly, Valentin’s strange, inconsistent infatuation with Noémie is not only queer-coded because she is of lowly birth which therefore precludes the possibility of marriage. Valentin despises Noémie’s opportunism but appreciates her as one would a dangerous art project: she foils Newman’s social ambition but has far more sophistication, and Valentin takes great pleasure in seeing them, if not dismantle, then at least disturb Parisian high society. 

Despite his opposition to the corrupt aristocracy, Valentin is not ready to abandon his social-standing, which is embodied in a particular brand of hetero-masculinity contingent on self-awareness and constant pretense. Where Newman’s masculinity seems like an accident by virtue of his unreflecting nature—he is seldom aware of being looked at, his masculine traits (self-made monetary success, excellent physique, and ambition to marry) are determined by circumstance not deliberation—Valentin is anxious about his body image and has achieved nothing remarkable as the second son in a dwindling aristocratic family, without political power and prohibited from entering trade (96); therefore, Valentin’s masculinity is always carefully orchestrated. His deadly duel over the unlikely love-interest that is Noémie exemplifies the performance of aristocratic hetero-masculinity as central to his selfhood. Using his typical monetary analogy, Newman tries to dissuade Valentin from picking a fight for “such an article as that,” to which Valentin responds, “The nature of the article—if you mean of the young lady—has nothing to do with it…I simply wish to make a point that a gentleman must” (250). Valentin also turns down Newman’s offer to assist him in the duel, for Newman would be too coulant to navigate this “precious performance” (267). Indeed, Newman calls the duel “a wretched theatrical affair” (257), whereas Noémie understands the theatrics—the social image—is greater than life. 

This is not the first occasion that exposes Newman’s odd relationship with performance. Most of the time, he does not recognize the performances because they are often suffused with sexual undertones. For instance, Valentin mocks Newman’s “lack” for failing to appreciate Noémie’s self-fashioning: “she doesn’t amuse you…your interest appears to flag just where that of many men would wake up” (221). If Newman realizes the performativity of a situation, it is often when he strains to meet a social expectation and immediately becomes uncomfortable with the endeavour: “He had said he wanted to improve his mind, but he would have felt a certain embarrassment, a certain shame even—a false shame possibly—if he had caught himself looking intellectually into the mirror” (63). Here, claiming Newman’s aversion to “performance” is not forgetting Judith Butler’s teachings that performativity is not necessitated by conscious participation. In fact, Newman constantly performs unsuspected manhood and the uncultured American without realizing——the asexual is not immune to ideological interpellation and still partakes in the continuous reproduction of norms. However, it is important to distinguish Newman’s experiential, unreflecting acting from the Bellegardes’ self-aware acting, since the latter denotes an understanding and deliberate embodiment of the taste-sexuality system, which manifests in the social field as presenting one’s self-image as an articulate piece of art. 

Therefore, Newman’s asexual-coded, undiscriminating taste and self-ignorance can be construed as an unconscious refusal of self-display, and, arguably, normative sociality. Taste and distinction are decidedly social, whereas Newman’s universal appreciation of art does not demand the presence of other tasteful judges. Sedgwick defines shame as “a disruptive moment, in a circuit of identity-constituting identificatory communication…like a stigma, shame is itself a form of communication” (Touching Feeling 36). Hence, similar to how asexuality often connotes a private, non-partnered relationship to sexuality, Newman’s autoerotic artistic enjoyment resembles “the chaste promiscuity of a body repeatedly reaching out to find itself beyond itself” (Bersani 125-128), demanding no sociality—not even the sociality of posing oneself as a judge—and therefore risking no shame borne out of social rejection. 

However, Newman’s culturally other presence in Parisian high society itself is a form of self-display that leads to public humiliation when the Marquise breaks the marital promise. Claire is forced to take the veil, and Valentin dies in shame of his family’s foul secret and their mistreatment of Newman. Embarrassed and enraged, Newman tries to avenge the Bellegarde siblings and himself by taking away the family’s respectable facade, to expose their ugly truths to the public eye: “You’ve treated me before the world, convened for the express purpose, as if I were not good enough for you. I mean to show the world that, however bad I may be, you’re not quite the people to say it” (367). Nevertheless, Newman soon finds himself on the other side of the balance, feeling ashamed at the thought of hurting the Marquise and the young Marquis, evil as they are. Having been exposed to judgment and shaming throughout his encounter with the taste-sexuality system, Newman is unable to subject others to the cruelty. From this gesture at sociality, one could assume, even if Newman has not internalized the European cultural distinction and remains an odd asexual, at least he has obtained an impression of its powers. 


In “Queer Theory from Elsewhere and the Im/Proper Objects of Queer Anthropology,” Margot Weiss addresses a “queer’s animating polarity that activates the field’s aspirations, so that, when we seek to move “beyond” queer’s proper objects, we find ourselves drawn back into them and, inversely, when we seek to center proper subjects of queer, we find ourselves elsewhere and otherwise” (316). I find this statement particularly pertinent to asexuality, a position that labours to undermine sexuality’s centrality to society and selfhood but often contradicts itself by virtue of being part of the modern sexuality discourse. Caught up in a similar back-and-forth motion, this essay can be understood as exposing compulsory sexuality’s expansive influence on all aspects of life in order to dilute its power, or as the complete opposite, that it zooms back to sexuality as the privileged site of knowledge. This concern of privileging sexuality is best exemplified by the collapse of all desires into sexual desire, a typical approach in queer reading. My essay reads artistic sensibility as entangled with a hegemonic sexual order, and although Newman’s pecuniary aspirations are read as non-sexual, monetary transactions are widely construed as encoding sexuality in nineteenth-century Anglophone fiction such as The Bostonians (1886) or McTeague (1899). There is also little distinction between sexual desire, romantic desire, and platonic desires such as friendship, attachment, and aesthetic appreciation. When it comes to sexuality or erotic potential, we are caught up in this back-and-forth motion between dissolving boundaries and resisting universalization and the conflation of concepts. 

Nevertheless, I agree with Weiss that this struggle between solidifying and liquidizing, centering and decentering sexuality possesses immense generative potential. For now, compulsory sexuality is still too prevalent, thus it is necessary for asexual analysis to read against the push for normative sexual readings. Understanding asexuality as a position of otherness that is always in relation to yet outside of sexuality is at least informative to our conception of social others, lest literary criticism becomes another site over which compulsory sexuality and homonormativity reigns. Introducing asexuality into literary analysis is in line with making a world ready for more varied modes of living, and addresses the fundamental doctrines of social life: which subjectivities are considered valid? What social relations are recognized? Whose lives are we allowed to grieve?

Works Cited

  • Adler, Nick. “The Beast Imperative.” The Henry James Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, Spring 2022, pp. 97-108. 
  • Bersani, Leo. Homos. Harvard University Press, 1995. 
  • Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993. 
  • Cerankowski, Karli June and Megan Milks, ed. Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2014. 
  • Edelman, Lee. “The Future Is Kid Stuff: Queer Theory, Disidentification, and the Death Drive.” Narrative, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), pp. 18-30. 
  • Elfenbein, Andrew. Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Ferguson, Roderick A. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. University of Minnesota Press, 2004. 
  • James, Henry. The American. New York: Barnes & Noble. Copyright 2005, originally published in 1877. 
  • Kahan, Benjamin. Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Duke University Press, 2013. 
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. 
  • —. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke University Press, 2003. 
  • Snaza, Nathan. “Asexuality and Erotic Biopolitics.” Feminist Formations, Volume 32, Issue 3, Winter 2020, pp. 121-144. 
  • Weiss, Margot. “Queer Theory from Elsewhere and the Im/Proper Objects of Queer Anthropology.” Feminist Anthropology (2022), 3: 315-335.

[1]  Editor’s note: all unattributed quotes are from Henry James’ The American.

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