Rereading recently a couple of chapters from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick‘s Epistemology of the Closet (U of California, 1990), I was struck by the power generated by her single-minded determination to view the world through the special optic of her homosexuality (she also claims membership in three other victimary categories: women, Jews, and fat people). I could not help comparing her aggressively personal partiality with the universalism of Generative Anthropology, and musing on on their relative popularity at the box-office of ideas.

I read most carefully her chapter on Marcel Proust, the last in the book. Proust, she claims, was only able to conceive his previously fragmentary work as a unified novel on the basis of what she calls “the spectacle of the closet,” the revelation or “outing” of the homosexuality of key characters of the novel, notably the Baron de Charlus, whom she calls “the novel’s most ravishingly consumable product.” The key first scene of this outing is one of the most famous in the novel, the opening of Sodome et Gomorrhe (euphemistically translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff as The Cities of the Plain), which depicts the mutual recognition of Charlus and a tailor named Jupien before the voyeuristic eye of the narrator, who is purportedly observing an orchid awaiting fertilization by a bee.

The attraction of the narrator’s hidden eye to the display of “secret” homosexuality is not reducible to the formal superiority over the characters in the world of the novel of the author, whom Flaubert described as “like God in his creation, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” The Flaubertian narrator-God smiles down sardonically on the denizens of his fictional world engaging in the pursuit of false desires–false because mimetic, like Emma Bovary‘s picture-book yearnings. But were he obliged to enter this world, his own desires would presumably be no different. We identify ambivalently with these protagonists whose worldly desires are in principle no more tawdry than our own, yet who are incapable of seeing and transcending this limitation as the narrative voice of the “implied author” permits us to do.

What becomes impossible to figure in the novel is the career of the novelist himself. There are no novelists in Flaubert; the only full-fledged artist is Pellerin in L’éducation sentimentale, a ridiculous figure whose only real success (as with Nadar on whom he is vaguely modeled) comes as a photographer. When in the 1870s Flaubert sought to represent “salvation,” his closest approach to the novelist (following three saints and a servant-girl) was the pair of copyists Bouvard and Pécuchet. In the unfinished part of the novel (which he no doubt could never have finished), B & P are made to “copy” a volume of bêtises of the sort that adorn the column-ends of the New Yorker, and which Flaubert himself had dutifully combed from real sources. But the resentful desire to denounce la bêtise, the only one Flaubert shares with his creations, is the most universal of all desires, a modern avatar of what I have called “originary resentment.” It is anything but an open door to the novelist’s Self–nor to the Selves of those who, world-bound as they may be, can nevertheless read him and identify with his otherworldly stance.

The “spectacle of the closet” provides Proust with an intermediary form of desire that serves to guarantee his first-person satire. Proust doubles the binary opposition between the worldly self and the artistic self, one the slave of mimetic desire, the other liberated from it, by the in-the-world opposition between the narrator and the inhabitants of “the cities of the plain” whose desires are proof of their damnation. A surprising proportion of the personnel of A la recherche is eventually revealed as homosexual; the only characters safe from this qualification are those whose desires are exclusively non-sexual, such as the arch-snob Mme Verdurin (who ends up Princesse de Guermantes), or those who belong to the narrator’s childhood world (e.g. Swann) and who are no longer around at the end of the novel. Nor–although the Duc de Guermantes twice changes his position on the Dreyfus affair, Charlus who once despised Mme Verdurin later courts her favor, and the côté de Guermantes and the côté de chez Swann are revealed at the end to be one–is homosexuality ever alleged as an example of the lability of desire. Numerous characters (such as the noble and soldierly Saint-Loup) are outed in the course of the novel, but no one is presented as going in the other direction, either in reality or in appearance. The outing process that begins on the first pages of Sodome et Gomorrhe thus provides a new model for the relationship between the narrator and the other characters. By revealing in language their closeted spectacle, the voyeuristic narrator supplements the purely formal difference between one who speaks and one who is spoken about, one who observes and one who is observed, by the “substantial” difference between one whose worldly desires are labile and tentative and therefore do not define him, and one whose identity as a homosexual bears the indelible stigma of a “vice” but at the same time the beauty of a self-determined artwork.

The era surrounding the turn of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence, along with the word “homosexual” itself, of a new homosexual identity, first nosological and then social. For Sedgwick, the source of this identity was what she calls“homosexual panic”: man’s fear of his own potential for homosexual desire. Despite the obvious question-begging that lies behind a term that, like “homophobia,” imputes repressed homosexual tendencies to anyone hostile to homosexual practices or lifestyles, Sedgwick has a point. The rise of homosexual identity coincides with the maturation of the market system into a consumer society where the individual self is defined by its choices in the world of desire. The “panic” Sedgwick speaks of reflects the possibility of losing one’s (respectable) identity through acceding to a homosexual desire that in earlier times would have been considered a temptation but not a threat to one’s sense of self. What she fails to point out is that the flip side of the panicky “homophobia” that led to such celebrated trials as those of Oscar Wilde and Eulenberg (in Germany) was the positive affirmation of the homosexual self-image by someone like André Gide. As Gide’s case shows, the homosexual is not simply a creation of the “homophobe” any more than (pace Sartre) the Jew is the creation of the antisemite. More or less clandestine groups of what we now call homosexuals have existed in all societies we know enough about; but so have groups of gamblers and drinkers. That homosexuality is not a “vice” but an “alternative lifestyle” is not the kind of idea that can be affirmed all at once; it emerges in the late nineteenth century neither from homosexuals nor from “homophobes,” but from their interaction in a new socio-economic environment.

In contrast with Gide’s prototypical affirmation of gayness, Proust, like Wilde before him (but less tragically), refused the designation of inverti and even fought a duel with one who so accused him. Yet it is Proust who is the more profound and true writer in the eyes of Sedgwick herself. In a paradox that is only apparent, Gide’s apology for homosexuality was based on a vision of it as a “special taste.” There are no homosexuals in Gide’s novels, only men with certain “inclinations” toward youth. Even Corydon, Gide’s celebrated defense of homosexuality, follows the Greek pederastic rather than the modern egalitarian model. It is Proust’s novel that exhibits the true beginnings of the gay lifestyle. Unlike the encounters between Gide or his fictional surrogates and Arab pre-adolescents, the conjunction between Charlus and Jupien, two middle-aged adults whose relationship, as Sedgwick reminds us, is one of the few constant ones in the novel, is the mutual affirmation of a profoundly experienced “natural” identity.

And because of this identity, the narrator’s sympathy cannot prevent them from being condemned as inhabitants of Sodom. Although Proust may have shared their tastes, neither he nor his narrator would accept to be called Sodomites. Lesser minds than Sedgwick have called this hypocrisy. But the resistance that the novelist shares with his characters is in the service of the one great aim of Proust’s life. He is said to have died of pneumonia brought on by waiting in the cold outside the apartment of a young man he had followed home; but he had finished his novel.

The “spectacle of the closet” that makes Charlus’ character so entertaining and even empowering is not merely the vision of the Other who cannot help but reveal his vices to the secretly observant Self. Charlus exemplifies the desiring self as a self-conscious, self-constructed work of art–the self that was born, one might say, with the portrait of Dorian Gray. Charlus’ persona with all its ironies and pathos is as emblematic of modernity as Emma Bovary’s was of the nascent consumer era. We are all disciples of Charlus, putting forth our desires both brazenly and ironically, but rarely with the panache that is the reward of his assumed stigma. Proust does not so much denounce this model of the self as deny himself the possibility and the pleasure of living it. Through refusing to make his life into a work of art, Proust was able to perform the supreme modernist feat of making a work of art out of his life.