Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tales of the Avunculate

by J J Cohen

Yes, I know, most of you are still reading Eileen's brilliant "little" post. I entered it on the weekend and by the time I emerged the sun was low in the sky Monday. While I am just standing here waiting for everyone else to catch up, I will type out a tiny contribution to our discussion in the form of two vignettes. They are offered in the true spirit of a blog ... something that if published more conventionally would be ficto-criticism.

(1) The Professor
Reading The Woman Warrior with an astonishingly good teacher convinced me to change my undergraduate major from biology to English. Reading Bright's Old English Grammar with an astonishingly good teacher convinced me, once there, to become a medievalist.

I'd signed up for "Introduction to Old English" as my first upper division class in the major because of a lingering methodical disposition -- inherited no doubt from my old identity as proto-scientist. In his tweed jacket with elbow patches, his wood-smelling office filled with unruly books, his propensity to mention the Victorian idea of a necropolis in the same breath as an obscene Old English riddle, the professor who taught this course was a cliché -- and a dream -- come true. I appreciated immediately his irreverence, his wit, his smart way of not taking himself or his field too seriously while also demanding, well, everything from his students. We loved him, so we were happy to oblige.

In November he brought to class a satchel of plastic runes he'd purchased at the bookstore. He spilled them over the table and made merciless fun of their enclosed marketing materials. He gave an impromptu lecture about medieval runic writing. The next week he missed class, and when he did appear announced that he shouldn't have ridiculed the runes. They had come with a warning to pay serious heed to their prognosticative abilities or face dire consequences. A week before the final exam we were told he was in the hospital. I worked in the dermatology department there, filing slides, and tried to see him. He was in a room with a sign announcing that he was IN ISOLATION and that no visitors were permitted. He died early in the new year, without ever having left that room.

Last spring I learned that he was one of the very first cases of AIDS treated at the hospital. He had not been treated as humanely as he should have been.


(2) The Aunt
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has written that
Because aunts and uncles (in either narrow or extended meanings) are adults whose intimate access to children needn't depend on their own pairing or procreation, it's very common, of course, for some of them ot have the office of representing nonconforming or nonreproductive sexualities to children ... It might therefore follow that a family system understood to include an avuncular function might also have a less hypostatized view of what and therefore how a child can desire. (Tendencies 63)
My tutor for a world that might be thought differently from the rather narrow view my parents intended to bequeath was my aunt Marie. The category she clung to fiercely, with a joy that I didn't understand but knew I admired (because her determination told me that for her the stakes were high) was single. She was a woman who had many friends, many intimacies, but she laughed away the pressures that -- even as a child -- I could see were placed upon her to marry, to have kids, perhaps even to give up the career and travel abroad she so loved. Four or five times every year she would take me and my brothers and sisters to stay for a few nights in her old house in Belmont: a double decker building on a quiet street that always smelled like polish and had a window made of stained glass. She insisted that welisten to the Supremes, her favorite group, and it was not optional to dance. When after chemotherapy she lost her hair, she purchased a wig that she said made her look like Diana Ross.

Aunt Marie died when I was seventeen, a very long time ago. This morning I was taking an early run along Mass Ave, listening (as I always do) to my iPod. The device was set to shuffle my thirty million songs ... and towards the end of my route Stop! In the Name of Love began to play. I don't know how that song got on my iPod -- I have no memory of placing it there, and I haven't listened to the Supremes in two decades. But there it was, and I was thinking about Aunt Marie, and my professor who had died, and Carolyn Dinshaw, and Margery Kempe, and being touched by those who, even when they are no longer present, make you realize that the orbits of our ordinary lives need never be so small.

I offer these vignettes partly in response to Eileen's post, with her wondering about vibrations in the archives and real, bounded, embodied persons. I offer this as a way of acknowledging that time's touch, queer or not, is often felt most keenly through those who open the past and the future to us. I can't think GM without the touch of this professor, this aunt, Robert Gluck, EJ, KS, MKH, CD...

1 comment:

erin said...

Thank you.
That is very very excellent.
I'm not used to this format, and don't hope to get used to it--only because I can't have the time to keep up-- but I am happy to see when it is used for the purposes of distribution of ideas that wouldn't otherwise be heard. This is cool and thanks.
-EFL