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Scholars, Metalepsis, and Queer Unhistoricism: Interventions of the Unruly Past in Reed’s 'Boy Caesar' and De Juan’s 'Este latente mundo'

Sebastian Matzner

In an important article, Valerie Traub recently assessed ‘The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies’ which, she argues, has gone too far in aligning (if not conflating) chronology, genealogy, teleology and ‘straight temporality’ in an attempt to free itself from ‘a lingering attachment to identity that unduly stabilizes sexuality and recruits earlier sexual regimes into a lockstep march toward the present … and through a kind of reverse contamination conscripts past sexual arrangements to modern categories’ (Traub 2013: 24). While she is prepared to accept the value of many propositions of the queer unhistoricists for literary criticism, she problematizes their validity in the realm of historiography.

Interestingly, many of the strategies suggested ‘to free queer scholarship from the tyranny of historicism’ (Nardizzi/Guy-Bray/Will 2009: 1) have been realised, in literary practice, in queer historical fiction. José Luis de Juan’s Este latente mundo (1999) and Jeremy Reed’s Boy Caesar (2004) are prime examples: both operate with a metafictional framework in which an ancient and a contemporary narrative, each involving non-hetero protagonists, first reflect each other and eventually collapse into each other. In Reed’s novel, contemporary Soho seeps into the Rome of emperor Heliogabalus, who gains an increasingly palpable (and disturbing) presence in the gay male protagonist’s life; initially as a character of academic interest, then as the leader of an orgiastic cult active on Hampstead Heath, eventually in direct confrontation with the protagonist himself. Similarly, in De Juan’s novel, the seemingly separate stories of the sexually voracious Syrian scribe Mazuf in first-century Rome and of a present-day American, who recounts his sexual exploits while studying at Harvard, entwine – with revisionist manipulation of classical texts and of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire serving as a connecting nexus. These novels thus enact what Traub (2013: 29) describes as the fundamental move of queer unhistoricists, namely that ‘[a]gainst what they view as a compulsory regime of historical alterity, they elevate anachronism and similitude as the expressions of queer insurgency.’ Through the use of metalepsis, that is, by collapsing narrative frames and, thereby, undermining linear chronology, these novels realise in the mode of literary fiction the kind of anachronistic queer ‘elective affinities’ which queer unhistoricists seem to envisage for the project of ‘homohistory’, defined by Goldberg and Manon (2005: 1609) as a history that ‘would be invested in suspending determinate sexual and chronological differences while expanding the possibilities of the nonhetero, with all its connotations of sameness, similarity, proximity, and anachronism.’ What is more, the protagonists of both novels are themselves advanced students of Classics, their plot lines consequently focused on their engagement with antiquity. This means that, (a) the novels’ protagonists are literary representations of queer historians, and as such blur the very boundary which Traub seeks to draw; and (b) the two novels simultaneously are classical receptions and about classical receptions, thus providing a unique focal point for reflections on the issue of queer (un-)historicism.

Taking its cue from the fraught position of these novels’ scholar-protagonists in mediating between past and present, and drawing on the models of ‘queer temporality’ (Jagose 2009) and ‘queer spectrality’ (Freccero 2007), this paper will ponder the wider implications of their metaleptic narrative structure for the imagined relationship between queers past and present. In doing so, it seeks to contribute to the debate on queer unhistoricism from the perspective of classical reception studies, where issues of anachronism are particularly relevant. Could the opening up of Classics, as a discipline, to reception studies (with its potential to challenge the hegemony of historicist approaches to ancient texts) resemble in a certain way ‘acts of queering [that] suspend the assurance that the only modes of knowing the past are either those that regard the past as wholly other or those that can assimilate it to a present assumed identical to itself’ (Goldberg/Manon 2005: 1616)?

Session/Panel Title

Unhistorical Receptions of Ancient Narrative

Session/Paper Number

42.3

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