Leo Bersani, Critic of French Literature and Gay Life, Dies at 90

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Dale Peck, writing in The Village Voice, took Dr. Bersani to task for all but ignoring the realities of the AIDS crisis and the changes gay men needed to make in light of it, while Denis Donoghue, writing in The New York Times, warned that “his program in ‘Homos’ seems to me a regression to apartheid, and one enforced this time round by homosexuals.”

Dr. Bersani, who spent most of his career at the University of California, Berkeley, was often labeled a queer theorist, as was Dr. Butler. But his work long preceded the field’s development, and ranged far beyond it.

His earliest writing, beginning with journal articles in the late 1950s and his first book, “Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and of Art” (1965), examined modern French literature through a reading of Freudian psychoanalysis, while at the same time outlining the limitations of Sigmund Freud’s work.

In both Freud and in the character of Marcel, the protagonist of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” Dr. Bersani found an insistence that humans are motivated by a desire to fill a psychic lack by grasping, understanding and ultimately asserting power over the world.

This desire, he argued, was not innate, but rather was drilled into us by society. In fact, he said, humans are digressive and frivolous by nature, and through much of his work he attempted to build a form of literary criticism that followed suit — one that saw literature not as a riddle to be solved but as an enigma to be admired and enjoyed, if never grasped.

“There was a playfulness,” Mikko Tuhkanen, a professor of English at Texas A&M University and a leading scholar of Dr. Bersani’s work, said in an email. “He was irritated by the ‘dead seriousness’ of a lot of scholarship on, for example, modernist texts. The ‘exegetical’ (as he called it) commentary on James Joyce, for example, annoyed him to no end: the effort to break the enigmas that the Master has left us with.”


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