Chloe Hogg on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's "The Beast in the Closet"

In her article "The Beast in the Closet," Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick identifies the condition of male homosexual panic, a mental state, socio-historical development and literary tradition, the product of the paradox created by "intense male homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds" (p.187). Sedgwick begins with a brief historical background, identifying the emergence of "the beginnings of a crystallized male homosexual role and male homosexual culture" (p.184) as occurring in England before the end of the eighteenth century. As homosexuality became less a theological matter, and more a cultural presence or theme, male homosexual panic developed in response to the new imperative of sexual definition. This panic affects not the homosexual (Sedgwick considers self-identified homosexuals as exempt from male homosexual panic) but the heterosexual or closeted homosexual male, who must negotiate "the treacherous middle stretch of the modern homosocial continuum" (p.188) ever wary of the "threat" of potential homosexuality. Thus, according to Sedgwick, the development of male homosexual panic and persecution in Euro-American culture colors the entire range of male homosocial bonds that subtend the patriarchal political, social and economic power structures.

Sedgwick turns to literary works, most notably those of Thakeray and James, to illustrate the concept of male homosexual panic through the new "character taxonomy" of the bachelor. That the bachelor represented, acted out male homosexual panic Sedgwick sees as evident in, among other indications, the character's "sometimes agonized sexual anathesia that was damaging to both its male subjects and its female non-objects" (p.188). Further on, Sedgwick notes as evidence of male homosexual panic the bachelor figure's "...demonization of women, especially mothers" (p.192). Yet nowhere does Segdwick identify nor address the misogyny that seems to lurk -- not even under -- but at the surface of the bachelor's world view (though she does identify his "feline gratuitousness of aggression" (p.192)). From her own citation of Thackeray's bachelor who neatly dismisses his female love interest as "a jilt who plays with a man's passion," the misogynistic element is clear. More seriously, when comparing the bachelor to Baudelaire's flaneur , Sedgwick fails to point out the misogyny inherant in, say, Baudelaire's conception of the dandy. Furthermore, the dandy, perhaps the supreme and certainly the most obvious example of the nineteenth-century bachelor, is not mentioned. Is Sedgwick sedulously avoiding the question of misogyny that seems quite clearly to be evoked by the bachelor figure she chooses to discuss? If so, she should say so. While finding SedgwickUs identification of male homosexual panic an important tool in the analysis of texts, relevant both to the nineteenth-century and today, I believe she occludes the interesting possibilities of a connection between the male homosexual panic experienced by dominant heterosexual structures and individuals and the expression of this panic through the discourse and thematics of misogyny.

Send a comment to Chloe A Hogg.