Queer(s) Reading / Too Close for Comfort / Elizabeth Freeman

Queer(s) Reading began as a panel for the 2020 Seattle MLA—an event that was, for many attendees, one of the last physical gatherings they would take part in for quite some time.  We continue that conversation in this forum under the very different conditions generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our collective concern is the vitalizing possibilities of queer(s) reading—that is, of embodied and located modes of experiencing, engaging with, and interpreting the literary, visual, multimedia, and theoretical texts that inform queer lives. Queer(s) reading, as the six authors in this forum describe it, is both a radical relation and a radical refusal, working to expand networks of queer kinship, collectivity, feeling, friendship, love, and desire. Queer reading may be done alone, but it is never solitary.

This forum’s desire is to play with and expand the potential of how we read, see, listen, and watch. We engage and pursue critical conversations beyond the deadlocked opposition between “critique” and “description.” Queer(s) reading is an invocation, and a provocation, that finds value in the inventiveness of the situated, the sensual, and the relations between. 

Many thanks to our contributors, to the audience at MLA, and to the editors of ASAP/J for their support

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Parentheses open

On a new gender crossed with stars…

There is no such thing as a non sequitur

When you’re in love

Ben Lerner, Mean Free Path, excerpted from epigraph to Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning

 Grief is a loss of both content and form: someone, in all their former plenitude and detail (content), is gone.  As well, their departure fails to register as a discrete shape, a loss that can be contained by being bound off from what remains (a form).  Compare two famous statements about grief.  The first is Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes— ” (Dickinson c. 1862).  The second is W.S. Merwin’s 1962 poem, “Separation”: “Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle./Everything I do is stitched with its color.” Though the two poems traffic in metaphors and similes— grief is a stone, lead, or snow in Dickinson; loss is like stitches in Merwin—neither speaker finds the contours by which either the lost object or their own anguish might be limned.   In a sense, then, grief cannot be read for in either of these texts.  It is absent even as emotion, for the only feeling named in either poem is Dickinson’s paradoxical “Quartz contentment,” the seeming antithesis of pain.

This might seem to be an argument for symptomatic reading, evidence for the need to read for the deeply traumatic scene of loss: what precisely happened to each speaker or poet?  Or it might seem to be an argument for surface reading, bolstering a claim that we should remember everything we can about the departed, amass their specificities and hold onto them: what were the object of Dickinson’s and Merwin’s loves like?  Both of these are ultimately modes of reading for content, either repressed or abundantly manifest.  But I’d like to advance another method of reading grief, or reading for grief, or even reading with grief.  It’s a kind of overly-close reading, which I’ll both enact here in a reading of a text that itself enacts that kind of reading, and try to describe—an extreme formalism that might simply be called the search for a shape.  Its queerness appears, perhaps, only as an echo or visual rhyme of Judith Butler’s claim that some lives do not count as grievable ones: the project of finding forms for losses of what never counted as present is not unique to queers but certainly one with which we have been especially familiar.1 And the queerness of overly-close reading “with” grief, reading as a search for shape, also appears as a stubborn attachment to the aesthetic, something again not unique to queers but perhaps a key survival strategy for many of us.  Maybe it even matters that the etymology of the word shape itself comes from the Old English gesceap, meaning not only “creation, creature; make, structure, natural character; form, figure, configuration,” but also, surprisingly and obliquely, “neuter” and “pudendum.”  Maybe the quest for a shape in/of the wake of grief is like the search for a nonbinary genital, a shape that was either lost in the “correction” of an intersex body or that would express as anatomy a perception of self.

In any case, let’s begin with some shapes: a field of black, a circle outlined in jagged black, black gashes, shards made of greyscale dots.  Figure 1 shows the image that launches Tom Hart’s beautiful 2015 graphic memoir of his toddler daughter’s death, Rosalie Lighting.2 The elements of this image are forms of non-presence, mimicking the non-presence of a lost object, not just a lost object, but sentimentalism’s quintessential lost object, a child.

Figure 1. Opening image.  Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2015), p. 14

These graphic elements—black, negative space, jagged lines, circles, shards and scratches, greyscale dots—suffuse Hart’s memoir of his life with Rosalie and after her death just before her second birthday.  Rosalie’s passing was cosmically meaningless, insofar as she simply died in her sleep of unexplained causes, a victim of “SUDC,” or the horrifically named “Sudden Unexplained Death of a Child,” a kind of elder sibling to SIDS. Hart’s graphics are the visual opposite of sentimentalism, that aesthetic mode so often dedicated to mourning dying and dead children.  For sentimentalism requires a subject who can feel, whose feeling is in fact authorized and endowed by the child’s suffering, and who, as the process of grieving becomes collectivized into sentimentality, achieves the ability to see from another’s point of view.  Sentimentality, as William L. Hughes has argued, is an aesthetic technique for disavowing the lack at the heart of all relationality, and specifically the lack at the heart of loss and grief.3 Sentimentality turns this lack into relations with other mourners, other readers and viewers—and indeed, mourning itself effects this same disavowal of non-relationality, as the bereaved subject eventually decathects from the lost object and recathects onto another, and/or onto the world.  In soliciting the initial identification that resolves into collectivity, sentimentalism requires a narrator (or the narrative equivalent of a camera) and an addressee.  Hart’s opening image presents no subject and no point of view, or rather, it spatializes a subject alienated from his point of view, displaced from himself and any interlocutors, by the loss of a child.   He is only an aperture.   Or he is a cloaca, if we return to the hidden gendered and sexualized roots of the word shape. 

Yet these shapes, these forms of loss, of no point of view, and of subjectlessness, are immediately unified and cohered on the facing page of Rosalie Lightning (see Figure 2):

Figure 2. “Her favorite image.”  Hart 2015, p. 15

Here, the field of black becomes pure white; the circle loses its jagged lines and widens out to become a square panel setting off time and space; the gashes become tree trunks, the shards become leaves.  The caption reads: “Her favorite image: in a single night, the oak tree grows to full height from a scattering of acorns in the garden” (15). Here, the subject is “she,” or Rosalie; the speaker orients us to the image and its meaning; our identification with Rosalie is solicited; the image becomes part of a narrative.

Figure 3. Scene from Totoro.  Hart 2015, p. 15

Below this panel, the next panel shows the trees from a distance, next to a house, with the caption “A scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor, Totoro”(see Figure 3). In just two facing pages, as if overnight, the fragmented elements of grief have resolved into a coherent picture that is both a metaphor for narrative and, itself, part of a narrative, with point of view secured, subjectivity indexed by both Rosalie’s love of the image, and the suturing of self and other accomplished by the phrase “my neighbor.”

This image of a tree, interspersed throughout Rosalie Lightning, is also the one that resolves the narrator’s process of mourning: it offers a unification, one last time, of the blackness, the gashes, the shards, and the circles.  Here’s how the novel’s last few pages look:

Figure 4. “Yes [Rosalie art].”  Hart 2015, p. 258.  We see a set of broken lines, circles, and gashes – here, a child’s scribble, quite possibly a reproduction of Rosalie’s scribbles, as the memoir reproduces quite a bit of her art.
Figure 5. “Yes [plant].”  Hart 2015, p. 259. Here, shards become leaves, and the jagged lines become an embryonic trunk.
Figure 6. “Yes [sapling]”.  Hart 2015, p. 260.  More shards becomes leaves, with the lines extending into branches.

Figure 7. “Yes [tree].”  Hart 2015, p.p. 262-263.

The tree grows larger two more times, into one final two-page spread of a gigantic Southern live oak tree draped with Spanish moss, and the word “yes” in a typeface made up of the greyscale shards beside it (see Figure 7).

Figure 8. “Rosalie.”  Hart 2015, pp. 264-265.

The memoir finishes with another two-page spread (see Figure 8).  The name “Rosalie” appears on the left in the typeface made of shards, with a photograph of the real Rosalie and Tom embedded in the oval with gashed or scratched sides that has appeared throughout the book. With this ending, Rosalie Lightning resolves the abstract forms of nonpresence—the black, the gashes and shards and circles that are figures of the unresolved kernel of loss so central to grief—first into a tree, something signifying time’s passage, growth, and unification, and then into an affirmation of both Rosalie’s name and coherent image. Rosalie Lighting literally draws out a sentimental process of mourning, and yet also, as I shall argue below strikes out sentimentality along the way.

All of this makes Hart’s memoir especially important for theorizing not only the visual forms that bereavement might take, but also mourning as, itself, a formal process, one that takes graphic form, and eventually, for theorizing grief as having its own graphic logic, one that I have described as the pursuit of a shape.  If sentimental fiction is cathartic and invites identification with the bereaved, graphic art, perhaps especially the graphic memoir, is something different: it is in some way indexical, for it commemorates the dead, archives loss, and visually “arranges” grief, in Dana Luciano’s (2007) terms.4 For this reason, the graphic memoir asks us to think of grief as something that takes form, achieves an arrangement, in (non)relation to the form of the lost object—and thus to think about how grief is mediated by aesthetics.  And it asks us to read with the process of arranging form, arranging grief.

Rosalie Lightning turns its figures for nonpresence, and for the nonrelationality that nonpresence insists upon, into somewhat typically sentimental figures for presence and relationality (trees, and also acorns, butterflies, and birds).  But turning back to Hughes’s formulation, sentimentality also enacts a disavowal of loss: it does so, I would add, through a kind of supra-human relationality, a relationality not only between people, but also between people and things, between things, between images, and between signs.  Following the epigraph to Rosalie Lightning, we might say that in sentimental mourning, as in sentimental love, “there is no such thing as a non-sequitur.”  We see our beloved in everything; everything is “stitched with [their] color.”  Thus sentimentality is hypersocial, social not only among humans but with the more-than-human, and it posits a surfeit of relations.  Its queerness lies both in the nonrelational lack at its center and in the forms of compensatory hyperrelationality it fantasizes—its overcloseness with everything—and, most importantly, in the dialectic between the two.  If lack is formless, hyperrelationality trades in a surfeit of unpredictable connections that often assume something like a shape, however contingent.  Reading with grief, reading as the search for a shape that grief makes so starkly evident, consists precisely of our own sociality with not only the human experience of loss and the authors and characters narrating it, but also of our sociality with the (non)forms that the narrative, and we as readers, turn into legible and bearable shapes.

Comic art is uniquely situated to draw out this queer dialectic between nonrelationality and hyperrelationality.  And so is queer reading, if we imagine queer reading as a kind of overformalist search for shapes that refuse to appear either as hidden content or as surface matter: a tendency to overcode and overpattern details until they cohere into the form of an idea or a social field that we need, and that is often aspirational rather than repressed or manifest.  While a graphic memoir about grief is perhaps an easier way to make this case than, say, a superhero comic might be, I’d still like to wager that comic art as a form shuttles between absolute lack and social surfeit, that this is part of its queerness, and that comics might teach us to read nonvisual texts differently, might teach us to read queerly in the broadest sense of the term.5 Here, following from my claim that comic art exemplifies the dynamic between nonrelationality and hyperrelationality, my second contention is that affect itself, and not only the affect of grief, can be theorized as graphic form, specifically the form of comic art which includes the reading strategies that the genre teaches us.

The sentimental work of mourning in Rosalie Lightning is performed through the device of visual rhyme.  The field of black, the oval edged by jagged lines, and the gash are repeated throughout the memoir (see Figure 9):

Figure 9. “You fall into a hole.”  Hart 2015, p. 82  The recurring white oval is explicitly thematized as a hole, while echoes of the black shards and the leaves in the earlier images appear in the dirt.

In this process of mourning, visual rhyme encodes the narrator’s attempt to make sense of Rosalie’s death, and of a world without Rosalie in it, by seeing the forms he has given to grief in absolutely everything, just as he sees Rosalie in every blonde toddler he passes. Everything relates to his loss.  There are no non-sequiturs.

Rosalie Lighting also suggests that comic art can give form to the queer dynamic between sentimental mourning’s hyperrelationality and unsentimentalized, hard-kerneled grief’s refusal of relationality. More broadly, Rosalie Lighting suggests that comic art can allow us to understand affect as form.  The narrator’s search for visual rhymes is fundamentally a search for connections between himself and the world, and for signs that will knit up to represent his daughter’s death and make it meaningful.  This plotline, as it were, doubles the action of reading comic art itself, and highlights the ways that reading comic art queers reading.  According to Scott McCloud, what distinguishes comic art from other kinds of sequential art, such as film, literature, or performance, is that the space between panels, the gutter, is visible: “The gutter,” he writes, “plays host to much of the magic and mystery that is at the heart of comics.”6 The visible space of the gutter, at once deeply connective in the way that only a magical mystery tour can be and also emblematic of loss and lack, exemplifies both surfeit and separation, and is a formal element unique to comic art—one that intersects both with the narrator’s irreducible loss and with his excessive figuring of relationality.  If the plot of Rosalie Lightning doubles the act of reading comic art, the gutter is the space in which that act of reading takes place.  Here, I think of Oscar Wilde’s contention that “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” looking for patterns in a seemingly meaningless galactic scatter plot.7

McCloud uses the term “closure,” from Gestalt psychology, to describe the work that we have to do to make sense of sequential panels divided by gutters, the mechanism by which the mind connects pictorial moments in time; actions; characters; spaces; aspects of a place, idea, or mood; and even, McCloud says, complete non-sequiturs.8  This is exactly what the narrator of Rosalie Lightning does with the figures he gives us in the memoir’s beginning—perhaps not so coincidentally, “closure” is also the term in popular psychology that names the resolution of mourning.  The mental work of closure is a denial of the lack at the heart of the gutter, which the gutter makes visible as black or white space in a way that other kinds of sequential art like film, performance, and prose fiction do not.  McCloud goes on to assert that “in a very real sense, comics is closure”.9  But isn’t closure also a form of opening?  Given that the mind will stitch together any two panels divided by a gutter, there seem to be, in comics, no non sequiturs.  This is why comic art “is” closure, and not the closure of mourning, whether or not the medium features grief as its content: with its visible gutter, comic art foregrounds loss and lack even as it makes us work harder than other media to disavow that loss and lack, connecting what seems impossible to connect.

If comics is closure, and closure is at once the form of grief (or what mourning cannot fully paper over) and the form of that very papering over, then I think it is possible to argue that grief takes place, appears, is given form in, and teaches us to read with, a medium associated with wit and laughter: comics.  The negative space of the gutter seems to me to be a powerful corollary to light, which for the media theorist Eugenie Brinkema indexes the irreducibility of the lost object and of loss precisely because the photograph is, according to Roland Barthes, “an emanation of the referent”, or consists of light that touched this photographed body and no other, transmitted to the viewer.10 Light, in Brinkema’s analysis, simultaneously binds the photographed object and the viewer, even as it indicates their unbreachable distance from one another.  But comics’ gutter, altogether shorn of image, and usually made up either of complete light (white space) or complete lack thereof (black space), effects no such binding by itself.  Rent from the images it connects, the gutter, as a formal device, obviates even the fantasy of relationality that subtends Barthes’s description of the photograph.

Returning to the opening image of Rosalie Lightning (see Figure 1), we might read the gashes, the proto-tree trunks, as gutters separating three abstract panels, irreparably separating them.  But the gutters also insist on their unity. The gutter is a bridge to the next image (and in a page of panels, a bridge on all four sides), and a cliff off of which the reader falls – into a crevasse, if not a hole.   With all this said, though, it’s also notable that Rosalie Lightning finishes with something that cannot be incorporated into the play of visual rhyme, into closure, or even into the negative space of the gutter: a photograph (see Figure 10).

Figure 10. Tom and Rosalie.  Hart 2015, p. 265.

This final photograph reiterates the oval, reclaiming the genderless, subjectless cloaca as an aperture that suggests a subject: the person behind the camera, presumably Rosalie’s mother.  It shows Rosalie, in a knitted Viking cap next to Tom, who also wears a hat – the memoir’s final instance of visual rhyme.  These are its sentimental accomplishments.

But in addition and conversely, Hart’s inclusion of the photo and his enclosure of it in a border that casts back to the scratches and gashes that appear throughout the work, may be yet one more nod to the gutter as a scene of connection through disconnection, the “non-sequiturian” form of overly-close reading that presses strange relationalities, even presses lack and loss, into new shapes.  The border, or frame, is a gutter without an image on its other side, a bridge to nowhere.  And this one is still gashed and fractured, suggesting that Rosalie herself cannot be contained by the tidy work of mourning. The photograph reminds us, as the gutter does, that not all grief can be arrogated to meaning. With this image, Hart displaces to the farthest edge of the book the possibility that some losses actually do remain non-sequiturs, forever refusing the consolations of form—but are not, for all that, incapable of connecting us to one another.

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This is one of seven essays from Queer(s) Reading. Read the other posts here.

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  1. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? Brooklyn, NY: Verso Press, 2016.
  2. Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.
  3. William L.  Hughes, “Impersonal Grief: Charles Dickens and Serial Forms of Affect.”  Differences 29.5 (2018): 86-106.
  4. Dana Luciano, Arranging Grief: Sacred Time and the Body in Nineteenth-Century America.  New York: New York University Press, 2007.
  5. See also Ramzi Fawaz, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. New York: New York University Press, 2016.
  6. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics.  New York: HarperPerennial, 1994, 66.
  7. Oscar Wilde,  Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893). The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde. Ware, Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 2007, 519.
  8. McCloud, Understanding Comics, 72.
  9. McCloud, Understanding Comics, 67.
  10. Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014; Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard.  New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982, 80.
Elizabeth Freeman
Elizabeth Freeman is Professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and the author of three books from Duke University Press: The Wedding Complex (2002), Time Binds (2010), and Beside You in Time (2019). She has edited a special issue of GLQ, “Queer Temporalities,” and co-edited a forthcoming special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly with Ellen Samuels, “Crip Temporalities.” She is finishing a co-edited anthology on queer kinship with Tyler Bradway, and her current book project considers the reading strategies associated with care work.