Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

Author: saveferris

Queerness and the Panopticon in Cereus Blooms at Night

“His eyes roamed my face. I felt as though he was looking for an angularity to my jawline and cheekbone, inspecting my moustache and other facial hair to help confirm a notion. The muscles of my cheeks became devilishly ticklish. I was afraid my eyes would begin to flicker on their own, as they were given to doing whenever I became shy” (Mootoo, 69).

In this scene from Cereus Blooms at Night, Tyler is speaking with Mr. Hector, the gardener at the hospital. Tyler, the narrator, is pausing during their conversation to note his thoughts to the reader. I believe that Shani Mootoo is using this moment in the text to hint towards Tyler’s queerness and his awareness of self around other people.

Tyler claims that he “felt as though” Mr. Hector was inspecting his facial bones and facial hair to “confirm a notion”. This notion, with what we know so far in the novel, is likely whether Tyler is a man. However, in any other context, this would simply look as if Mr. Hector was looking at Tyler during their conversation. I do not necessarily believe Mr. Hector was actually trying to confirm Tyler’s sex, but Tyler’s self-consciousness enabled this fear to blossom because of simply a look. As Tyler picks up on this fear, he becomes shy and suddenly overly aware of how he looks.

Tyler feels particularly visible, and thus vulnerable, during this moment. Mr. Hector has been nothing but kind to Tyler so far in the novel and there is no obvious reason he should feel so shy. However, because of Tyler’s otherness, any attention or gaze is construed as negative for Tyler. This moment reminds me of Foucault’s theory of the panopticon. Although not discussed in the section of The History of Sexuality we read for this class, the panopticon applies to sexuality as much as it applies to almost anything else in society. Foucault argues that we all carry a false perception that we are being constantly watched and observed by society around us, and thus police our bodies to be more normalized. At this moment, Tyler’s fear that he is being observed so closely by Mr. Hector results in his own policing as he fears his “eyes would begin to flicker on their own” and his “cheeks became devilishly ticklish”.

This is so important because it speaks to how queer people feel the need to police themselves because of a fear that they are being monitored into normalcy. Anything that hints at this supervision by outsiders alerts queer people immediately. Although some outsiders are truly policing and watching queer people, I do not believe that Mr. Hector was in this case. However, Tyler’s fear that he was being watched is nonetheless very real and extremely difficult to break out of when society has conditioned him to police himself into normalcy his whole life.

Tyler’s constant self-awareness around others is exhausting, time-consuming, and completely unfair, but can only be changed with time and revolutionary acts of accepting queerness as normal. One example of this is when Mala gives Tyler the dress and does not react with any big response, neither positive or negative, because “the outfit was not something to congratulate or scorn-it simply was” (Mootoo, 77).

Synesthesia in Autobiography of Red

Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson, is an incredibly creative and original book of poems. The combination of a modern setting with Greek myth tells a highly unique story, but Carson’s inventiveness goes beyond the general plot and even into the specific lines and words she uses to paint a picture. Throughout the novel, Carson uses color to describe at least one thing in almost every poem. Certain colors come up more than others, including gold, and, of course, red. Carson does not simply describe objects with colors, but emotions, moods, tastes, smells, and feelings. For example, in the first poem, “Justice”, Carson writes, “the intolerable red assault of grass… was pulling him towards it”. This unusual use of color can be seen throughout the book as an example of synesthesia. Synesthesia is a rare disorder in which people associate stimulation of one sense with another (for example, smelling colors). Carson’s decision to use synesthesia could be a way of implying Geryon’s inability to fit into the world in the way others do. He understands things differently, but beautifully. Geryon, a little red monster, is special and unique for many reasons, one of which being his color.  Red is an incredibly stimulating color, and even those of us without synesthesia may associate redness with a lot of different meanings including love, anger, and lust. However, most of all, red in this book is a symbol of glaring difference in a black and white world. The inventiveness of this book, including the overall plot as well as the use of synesthesia, is symbolic of Geryon’s own uniqueness and difference.

I’m her best chance

Like my mother // who won’t stay dead, her eyes fixing into mine like she knows // I’m her best chance.

For the closing piece in Mosaic of the Dark, titled “Even Houseflies”, Lisa Dordal writes a beautiful poem about how even houseflies have angels, just like the rest of us. One of my favorite moments in this poem is when Dordal mentions her mother, comparing her to the fly in the room, gently reminding her of her presence even after death.

Dordal writes “her eyes fixing into mine like she knows // I’m her best chance”. I love these lines because it feels like there are multiple meanings here. At first, I read these lines as simply her mother watching her from afar, knowing Lisa is her best chance of communicating with the world. This has been an ongoing theme in several poems in Mosaic of the Dark, and Dordal has made it clear that communication between her and her mother could be strained at best. However, as we have also discovered throughout this book of poems, Dordal’s mother was quite possibly a closeted lesbian. After reading this through a few more times, I realized this moment in the poem may be a metaphor of not only her mother as a fly on the wall but also of their relationship while she was alive. I believe Dordal’s choice to write “I’m her best chance” is critical here because there are of course many people Lisa’s mother could have tried to communicate with after death. In fact, she probably had a better relationship with a lot of other people. However, for Dordal to claim that she was her best chance means that there was something specific about Lisa that would allow her to understand.

I would argue that the detail only Lisa carries is her experience as a lesbian. Coming out is such a difficult thing for anyone, but to come out to someone who understands, let alone has experience in, the LGBTQ+ community would be a logical first step. I believe this line in the poem was a very intentional and beautiful message from Dordal that LGBTQ+ identifying individuals understand each other and share a lived experience unlike anyone else. However, as much as I understand and agree with this point, I also think it is interesting to relate it back to Michael Warner’s idea about how even LGBTQ+ identifying people can be dismissive and even discriminatory of other “deviant” sexual choices. Certainly, not all queer people are completely accepting of all other queer people and to believe otherwise is somewhat naive, in Warner’s eyes. I imagine that Dordal would be very accepting of her mother’s sexuality, but I have to agree with Warner that, in general, speaking with just any queer person when coming out is not always going to be the “best chance” at acceptance.

The laws of love

“Two hundred miles from the surface of the earth, there is no gravity. The laws of motion are suspended. You could turn somersaults slowly slowly, weight into weightlessness, nowhere to fall… You will break up bone by bone, fractured from who you are, you are drifting away now, the centre cannot hold” (100).

This passage from Written on the Body speaks volumes. The repetition of words related to science, physics, space, and motion (such as earth, gravity, laws of motion, weight, bone, etc.) is critical to understanding this moment in the novel. The laws of motion are considered by most to be absolute, unchangeable and fixed. However, just 200 miles from where we all stand on Earth, everything we think we know about physics is wrong. We are rooted to the earth through gravity, but in a moment, we can be lifted from normalcy and brought into weightlessness with nowhere to fall.

Much like a scientific fact, the narrator thought they knew everything about Louise and everything about their life together. Yet, because of just one sentence, everything crumbled to pieces. Not only was their life with Louise shattered, but even the narrator themself was “fractured from who [they] were, drifting away now” (100). When something as easily accepted and important as gravity, or in this case, true love, breaks, who you are breaks with it.

As another student mentioned in class, “the centre cannot hold” comes from a Yeats poem titled “The Second Coming”. In my opinion, both the poem and the novel’s passage refer to absolute chaos erupting from the seams of the world. Louise was the narrator’s world and imagining a life without her was like imagining life without the laws of motion- impossible.

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