The Messy Humanity of Leo Bersani (April 16, 1931–February 20, 2022)

We were separately asked to write about Leo Bersani—the inimitable French scholar and astute, critic critic of queer identity, who died on February 20, 2022—but could not do so because it was all too close. But in talking together we found a way to enable each other, and the result is this fragment of a conversation between two people who loved and learned from Leo.

—Anne Anlin Cheng and Zahid R. Chaudhary

Anne Anlin Cheng: Ralph Waldo Emerson said that grief is shallow. I never understood what meant except perhaps that death has no revelatory depth; it is such a flat refusal.

Leo Bersani was my dissertation adviser at the University of California, Berkeley, before he was my friend, which meant that for a long time I could only see him through the scrim of my needs. His interested disinterest was the yardstick by which I judged myself. Back then I was terribly afraid of him. I used to get stomach aches every time before seeing him about a piece of writing that I had submitted. I would sit, tense in those late afternoons when the sun always hit a gleam off the right-hand corner of his desk, waiting for the verdict. This terror had no truth in reality—he had never been anything but kind in the 28 years that I’ve known him—but his intellect was so fierce and pure that he had ever dismissed something that I wrote, it would simply and irrevocably be because it was bad thinking. It took years before I could feel at ease with him.

I spoke to him on the phone a few days before he died. I spoke as the young me back then and the old me now. I couldn’t tell if he could hear me.

Zahid R. Chaudhary: I know the feeling you describe. I met Leo when he was a distinguished visitor at Princeton, and I was lucky to get to know him over many conversations about film, the cuteness of men, and the strangeness of relationships. One evening in New York I took my place across the table from Leo, and once the waiter left with our order, Leo began, “I read your book [Afterimage of Empire] today.” My terror surprised me, and yet there it was. Though Leo’s voice suggested generosity I still feared the gavel. He appreciated my critique of sympathy in the book. We agreed that sympathy can be a form of narcissism and wondered together how to guard against its overreach.

AAC: Leo wasn’t interested in the question of race the way I was/am, but he understood in profound ways the socio-psycho dynamics of power. (And what is race but that?) It was through his work on Beckett that I started to see how intersubjectivity and the social exert their fullest and most enduring force through the private and the intrasubjective. It was his work on Mark Rothko and Alain Resnais that helped me understand that the work of resistance may resist its own capture, that there may be silent, alternative modes of survival and being for those caught in the catastrophes of history.

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