Sunday, May 12, 2013

Erin G. Carlston's "Double Agents"

Erin G. Carlston is associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she serves on the Board of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies and has directed the Program in Sexuality Studies. Her publications include Thinking Fascism: Sapphic Modernism and Fascist Modernity and articles in Modern Fiction Studies, American Literary History, Aztlán, and Romanic Review.

Carlston applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Double Agents: Espionage, Literature, and Liminal Citizens, and reported the following:
Double Agents investigates the associations that have been drawn, in both literary works and other media, among male homosexuals, Jews, and Communists as “invisible others.” In particular, I argue that such people evoke anxieties about the cohesion and security of the nation-state that are often expressed by representing them as traitors and spies, “double agents” who appear to be citizens but are actually operating as moles, subversives. In illustrating this claim I consider genres, countries, texts and historical periods that include the Dreyfus Affair in France; Marcel Proust’s massive novel In Search of Lost Time; the early poetry of W.H. Auden; the Burgess-Maclean scandal in Britain; the Cold War, Red Scare and Lavender Panic; the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg “atomic espionage” trial in the U.S.; and Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America.

Page 99 of Double Agents is about Sodom and Gomorrah, Volume IV of In Search of Lost Time. I discuss the way homosexuality and Jewishness are presented in In Search of Lost Time as opaque sign systems that the straight, Catholic narrator has to learn to decipher, and I argue that the novel itself is a “decoding device.” I’m especially interested in the way that Proust uses the Dreyfus Affair—an 1894 spy scandal in which a Jewish army officer was accused of selling military secrets to a bisexual German diplomat—to bring sexuality and Jewishness together and to teach his audience to read history and social relationships from the perspective of these “secret” identities. As I write on p. 99,
...part of the novel’s project is to involve the putatively heterosexual, Gentile reader in the unveiling of the mysteries of inversion and Jewishness, so that she can piece together the proleptic fragments of information in the earlier volumes and reinsert them into a coherent narrative later on. This requires that the reader, like Marcel, take on the identity of a spy herself, peering in at these presumably alien beings and learning to decipher their codes.... Furthermore, if we accept Hannah Arendt’s argument that Proust’s own identity as a (partially) closeted homosexual and (largely) assimilated Jew positioned him particularly well as an observer of—a spy on—salon society (80), we might figure Proust’s relationship to the world he describes in terms of espionage as well.

Espionage is, in fact, a productive metaphor not only for the relationship of both the writer and the reader to the text, but for all the human relationships within the text.
While p. 99 is about just one novel, it’s nicely representative of the major themes and methodology of Double Agents: it demonstrates how I use close readings to explain both literary texts and historical documents, and indicates what the idea of “espionage” can tell us not only about literature, but also about periods of crisis in political and cultural history.
Learn more about Double Agents at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue