A creature luminous and vexed, the firefly flits in melancholic briefness, brilliant yet burning out, its light’s little lifespan mocked by the starry fixtures of the sky. The firefly’s illumination is a chemical process, like the flash of a camera but without the photograph’s sense of permanence and history. Instead, summer by summer, children chase down these natural lanterns and collect them in mason jars, glass enclosures for viewing their darkening demise. Aquariums of lost energy.
From the start, I wanted Claude Cahun to be like me, or I saw myself in them, and used the pronoun that would make this misrecognition seem the most true. It would be possible to write a different sort of essay than the one I’m writing now, without any recourse to autobiography. This other, more academic essay would make a strong case for Cahun as a key figure in transgender history. But my argument for why Cahun’s pronouns matter is situated in the drama of more personal misrecognitions, mine and those of others, played out between the queer historical past and the present tense of its archival recovery.
As a scholar of early-twentieth-century literature, I have not found it necessary to address contemporary political issues in my work. However, the election of Donald Trump has forced me to change my thoughts about writing in general and more specifically, about publishing on modernist women writers. In the present academic climate, many who read and teach in the perpetually unpopular field of women writers also contend with heavy teaching loads, difficult family commitments and/or precarious employment.
One of the remarkable—yet often overlooked—features of aesthetic experience is its capacity to enact both promises and threats. Neither enlisting itself unequivocally in social utopias, nor allowing itself to be jettisoned in favor of a morally, politically, or epistemically more salutary alternative, the aesthetic domain is a field of pleasure and pain, of ignorance and knowledge, of brutality and life-sustaining agency. Its alliance with invidious forces and histories notwithstanding, the aesthetic enables us to confront tensions in the realms of epistemology,
When Orlando falls into his transformative trance at the mid-point of Virginia Woolf’s romp of a novel, he is an agent of the British Empire in Constantinople, at the moment of receiving his newly conferred Dukedom. The ceremony is a pageant of Empire, which gathers “people of all nationalities” to celebrate Orlando’s status, while the text makes frequent reference to the show of British superiority in this event.