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

Leo Bersani, who over a 60-year career as a scholar of modern French literature had a profound influence on art and literary criticism, and who later played a central role in debates about gay and queer identity at the height of the AIDS crisis, died on Feb. 20 at an assisted-living facility in Peoria, Ariz. He was 90.

His partner, Sam Geraci, confirmed the death but said the cause had not been determined.

Dr. Bersani was best known for his 1987 essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” a dense, polemical critique of the tendency among some gay activists to respond to AIDS by downplaying their sexuality and emphasizing the need to replicate bourgeois heterosexuality.

Male homosexuality was not the mirror image of heterosexuality, he argued, but something radically different, lacking many of the patriarchal inequalities that he said defined straight life.

“Far from apologizing for their promiscuity as a failure to maintain a loving relationship,” he wrote, “gay men should ceaselessly lament the practical necessity, now, of such relations, should resist being drawn into mimicking the unrelenting warfare between men and women.”

He followed nearly a decade later, with “Homos” (1995), a book-length critique of the emerging field of queer theory, and in particular of its leading figure, Judith Butler.

Dr. Bersani argued that in their depiction of gay identity as socially constructed and of aspects of gay culture as performative and parodic of straight life, Dr. Butler and others threatened to remove those qualities that made male homosexuality salient and even potentially liberating.

“He was one of our most scandalous thinkers,” Jacqueline Rose, a professor at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London, said in a phone interview. “He thought that the whole point of being a homosexual man is that you disrupted the experience of possession, ownership, fidelity, consistency, safety, and you allowed sexuality to be what it really is, which is disruptive, disorienting, shattering, limit-violating and boundary-breaking.”

Dr. Bersani, a colleague said, “was one of our most scandalous thinkers.”Credit…Claudia Peppel/ICI Berlin

Though many writers praised “Homos” — Richard Canning, writing in The New Statesman and Society, called it a “milestone in gay studies” — others were more critical.

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.”

Dr. Bersani’s first book, published in 1965, examined modern French literature through a reading of Freudian psychoanalysis. Thirty years later, his focus had shifted to the emerging field of queer theory.Credit…Oxford University Press, Harvard University Press

An early and avid proponent of the post-structuralist theories coming from France in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Dr. Bersani was particularly taken with the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault, who became a close friend, and whom he brought to Berkeley as a visiting professor.

Like Dr. Bersani, Mr. Foucault critiqued what he called “the will to know,” to grasp the interiority of a subject and assert power over it, and instead looked for nonaggressive, noninvasive ways of engaging with other people — akin, he said, to the way one might look at a painting in a gallery.

“Foucault asked the question, ‘Why can’t we live our lives like a work of art?’ and Leo was just fascinated by that,” John Paul Ricco, an art historian at the University of Toronto, said in an interview.

Dr. Bersani’s later work, starting in the late 1990s, was especially taken with this project of showing that we can encounter something — an artwork, another person, the world itself — without dominating it, or even understanding it.

“He was an absolutely brilliant reader at taking what seemed to be the knots, or the impenetrability, or the downright insanity of a piece of writing, and just saying, ‘Hey, guys, that’s the point,’” Dr. Rose said.

Leo Bersani was born on April 16, 1931, in the Bronx, where his father, Guido Bersani, was a restaurateur. His mother, Hattie (Wischer) Bersani, was a bartender, often at his father’s restaurants.

He graduated from Harvard in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in Romance languages, and in 1958 with a Ph.D. in comparative literature. By then he was already teaching at Wellesley College in Massachusetts; he later taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey before moving to Berkeley in 1972. He remained there for the rest of his career.

He met Mr. Geraci in 1992. They married in 2014. He leaves no other immediate survivors.

Though Dr. Bersani trained as a literary scholar, his last works focused on art and film, from assessments of Assyrian palace reliefs to the work of the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. He took emeritus status in 1996 but continued to teach and write; he published his final book, “Receptive Bodies,” in 2018.

Despite the apparent disjunction between Dr. Bersani’s literary criticism and his work on gay identity, there are themes running through both. He found in gay life a living instance of the sort of “swerve” and aesthetic frivolity that he called for in art and literature; for example, he praised gay bath houses for the casual sexual encounters they encouraged.

“He was interested in sort of lighter ways of sharing the world,” Dr. Tuhkanen said. “Just moving along and sharing rhythms and having anonymous sex where we don’t need to have knowledge of the other person, but we can share a kind of bodily moment and a pleasurable moment. And maybe have a chat afterward.”

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