Book Review: CELIBACIES by Benjamin Kahan

celibaciesIn truth less a “book review” proper than a note to “return later.” Nonetheless:

I wish I currently had time to more fully investigate Benjamin Kahan’s fascinating study Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life, which provocatively “historicizes celibacy as a sexuality,” and, furthermore,  argues that celibacy constitutes “a coherent sexual identity rather than a ‘closeting’ screen for another identity” (1,2). I was only able to read the Introduction before deciding that the subject matter was quickly taking me too far afield from the scope of my immediate research, but what I did read I found quite compelling.

In his introduction Kahan lays out his argument for “The Expressive Hypothesis”–a clever reconfiguration of Foucault–and he insists that “like Foucault, who resists seeing ‘defenses, censorships, [and] denials’ in merely negative terms,” he “understand celibacy as an organization of pleasure rather than a failure, renunciation, or even ascesis of pleasure (though I also read it in these terms)” (4).

What initially caught my attention about this study was the possibility that it would help clarify why there are a number of artists and cultural figures from this era that seem to most productively be regarded as “queer” or at least within the context of queerness, but whose (lack of) sexual activity–at least as far as can be ascertained from the historical record–must inevitably be contended with before applying such a sexually-inflected label.

joseph cornell portrait

Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell and Florine Stettheimer were at the forefront of my mind when taking up this book, but Kahan presents an impressive list of modernist “figures who were sexually recalcitrant, indifferent, alienated, unattached, lonely, and lifelong or periodic celibates,” with a partial list including Flaubert, Dickinson, Proust, Rilke, Kafka, Ferber, Borges, Welty, etc, as well as a number of figures I aim to consider within this space at some point, such as Langston Hughes, E.M. Forster, Baron Corvo, Edith Sitwell, and others (and this doesn’t even get into the artists who took up celibacy as a major theme in their work).

Kahan very deliberately avoids eliding celibacy under the category of “queer,” and implicitly he makes it quite clear that this is not an argument for the inclusion of “C” to the ever-expanding umbrella abbreviation for the LGBT[etc] community. At the same time, while Kahan’s argumentation certainly upsets the binary between “normal/queer binaries,” that process of subversion inevitably aligns it with the general impulse behind queer theorization.

Frankly, I am surprised this is the first major study of its kind. Fascinating and important work which I look forward to returning to.

Celibacies is available for purchase through the Duke University Press website.

Works Cited

Kahan, Benjamin. Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2013.