Reparative/Redemptive Reading from Reading Gaol: Towards a Eucharistic Theory of Interpretation
O'Malley, Patrick R.
This thesis argues that Oscar Wilde anticipates Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s conceptof reparative reading. In 2003’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity,Sedgwick argues that the hermeneutics of suspicion – whereby the reader exposes theunjust power structures lying beneath the surface of a cultural object – has becomeendemic to literary studies in a way that limits scholars’ political and interpretive impact.She offers reparative reading as an alternative approach that prioritizes the curatorialaffects of hope and nurture, enabling scholars to find sustenance in cultural objects madewith hostile intent.Though a very different text from Touching Feeling, Wilde’s De Profundis alsoarticulates an approach to cultural objects that can productively be understood asreparative. Incarcerated for “gross indecency” with other men, Wilde refuses to acceptthe punitive and disciplinary intent of the prison system, instead re-envisioning its harshmechanisms as means for spiritual growth and aesthetic development. In my introduction,I compare the two texts, arguing that both ultimately advocate a model of reading that Icall Eucharistic. I then outline this Eucharistic model, drawing on Roman Catholicsacramental theology to crystallize the affective motives and political investments ofWilde and Sedgwick’s projects. Finally, I situate this Eucharistic model in the currentscholarly conversation on queer theory.In each of the chapters, I analyze how Wilde reparatively engages various aspectsof the Christian tradition to nurture his identity as a queer man. The first chapterconsiders “The Fisherman and His Soul,” a fairy-tale published in 1891’s A House ofPomegranates, and argues that Wilde undermines the false binary between sensuality andspirituality by figuring a self-righteous priest and the titular lovestruck fisherman asdoubles of one another. The second chapter argues that Wilde embeds baptismal andEucharistic imagery in The Importance of Being Earnest, repackaging the eroticizedCatholicism of earlier works to appeal to a mainstream, middle-class Anglican audience.My final chapter returns to De Profundis, arguing that we should see the letter as areparative reworking of the biblical epistles of St. Paul.
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