Epistemology of the Closet | The Nation


Epistemology of the Closet

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While Sidgwick was testing the limits of religion, Schultz shows in the most surprising portion of his book, he was also profoundly unconventional in matters of gender and sexuality--much more so indeed than Bentham, a lifelong solitary bachelor, or Mill, whose most scandalous act was to go about with a beloved married woman for many years, probably without sleeping with her, and then to marry her after her husband's death. Sidgwick, by contrast, was not just a feminist, which we knew, but also a lifelong homosexual, which we have never clearly known. Much of the book is devoted to probing Sidgwick's role in a circle of men of homoerotic inclinations, prominently including John Addington Symonds, the independent scholar who (in a monograph titled A Problem in Greek Ethics) did more than anyone prior to Sir Kenneth Dover to put our knowledge of ancient Greek sexual practices on the right track. Although it is unclear whether Sidgwick ever expressed his inclinations in sexual intercourse, and although he did eventually marry the estimable Eleanor Mildred Balfour, whom he met in the Society for Psychical Research, Schultz does establish that he was entirely impotent sexually with women (Symonds and most of the other men in the circle were not, and fathered children), and that he struggled throughout his life with issues of hypocrisy and openness in connection with his own forbidden desires. His fear of scandal kept him from embracing his sexual identity, and he aggressively protected his friends from exposure and disgrace, at one point making Symonds lock up a box of his passionate homoerotic poems and dumping its key, himself, into the river Avon. "I feel often as unrelated and unadapted to my universe as man can feel," Sidgwick summarized himself to a male friend.

About the Author

Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Chicago, is the author of numerous books, most...

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Stories like Sidgwick's have been told in histories of Victorian sexuality, but Schultz has mined the intimate correspondence of Symonds and Sidgwick for priceless insights into the way gay men experienced the world in the time of Oscar Wilde. What we see here more clearly than ever before is the cruel deformation of personality wrought by the Victorian closet, with its looming fear of disgrace and imprisonment. Consider the case history of himself contributed by Symonds to Havelock Ellis's Studies in Sexual Inversion:

At about the age of 30, unable to endure his position any longer, he at last yielded to his sexual inclinations. As he began to do this, he also began to regain calm and comparative health.... In the third period the gratification became more frankly sensual. It took every shape: mutual masturbation, intercrural coitus, fellatio, irrumatio, occasionally paedicatio, always according to the inclination or concession of the beloved male.... Coitus with males, as above described, always seems to him healthy and natural; it leaves a deep sense of well-being, and has cemented durable friendships. He has always sought to form permanent ties with the men whom he has adored so excessively.
 He has suffered extremely throughout life owing to his sense of the difference between himself and normal human beings. No pleasure he has enjoyed, he declares, can equal a thousandth part of the pain caused by the internal consciousness of Pariahdom [Symonds describes the ruin of his health by anxiety in early years, and his gradual restoration, after sexual fulfillment was found].... Although he always has before him the terror of discovery, he is convinced that his sexual dealings with men have been thoroughly wholesome to himself, largely increasing his physical, moral, and intellectual energy, and not injurious to others. As a man of letters he regrets that he has been shut out from that form of artistic expression which would express his own emotions. He has no sense whatever of moral wrong in his actions, and he regards the attitude of society towards those in his position as utterly unjust and founded on false principles.

Not for Sidgwick, however, even this hard-won journey to self-acceptance and spiritual repose. Guilt and fear keep on oscillating unsteadily with the sense that his desires are good and their objects beautiful and lovable. To read the following extract from Sidgwick's private jottings marked "(May 1867 to JAS)" is to take on an utterly new view of the arid academic we thought we knew:

1. These are my friends--beautiful, plain-featured, tender-hearted, hard-headed.
2. Pure, spiritual, sympathetic, debauched, worldly, violent in conflict.
3. Their virtue and vice are mine and not mine: they were made my friends before they were made virtuous and vicious.
4. Because I know them, the Universe knows them and you shall know them: they exist and will exist, because I love them.
5. This one is great and forgets me: I weep, but I care not, because I love him.
6. This one is afar off, and his life lies a ruin: I weep but I care not because I love him.
7. We meet, and their eyes sparkle and then are calm.
8. Their eyes are calm and they smile: their hands are quick and their fingers tremble.
9. The light of heaven enwraps them: their faces and their forms become harmonious to me with the harmony of the Universe.
10. The air of heaven is spread around them; their houses and books, their pictures and carpets make music to me as all things make music to God....
13. Some are women to me, and to some I am a woman.
14. Each day anew we are born, we meet and love, we embrace and are united for ever: with passion that wakes no longing, with fruition that brings no satiety.

Reading such passionate and slightly mad utterances, we understand that the closet enclosed Sidgwick's poetry as well as his body. And we attach a new sense to his constant insistence that moral judgments are best made from the "point of view of the Universe." For Bernard Williams and other critics, this preference for the detached point of view shows Sidgwick's emotional obtuseness, his inability to see the value of the personal point of view. Schultz shows that things are much more complex: The Universe (unlike "my universe," in the other quotation) is a place beyond Victorian morality, a place that knows the good of love and sees the surpassing beauty of the men who are its objects. Perhaps the saddest aspect of this fantasy is its unmistakably Victorian character. (Sidgwick loved Pre-Raphaelite verse and called Christina Rossetti's "Remember" "perhaps the most perfect thing that any living poet has written.") Whereas Bentham and Mill derived happiness from their outsider status (Mill insisted on being buried in France because he was utterly fed up with England and the English), Sidgwick cannot stop being of his time even in the act of spurning it.

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