This essay charts a history and theory of celibacy. Redressing the scholarly and popular tendency to read celibacy as “closeted” homosexuality, I disarticulate the history of celibacy from the history of homosexuality. Despite Michel Foucault's much-recited lesson that “there is not one but many silences,” queer theory continues to read celibacy as the sign of another practice: homosexuality as “the love that dare not speak its name” or the “impossibility” of lesbian sex. Mapping celibacy across sexuality studies' major conceptual grids (homo/hetero, acts/identities, fantasy/practice, friendship/homosexuality), this essay attempts to articulate an affirmative content for celibacy. Reading Marianne Moore's last single volume of original work, Tell Me, Tell Me (1966), and Elizabeth Bishop's memoir of Moore, “Efforts of Affection” (1979), I elaborate a definition of celibate temporality in relation to recent work on queer temporality. Under both these rubrics, time is an ideological force that regulates sex: for example, the “old maid” is “late” according to a trajectory of normal sexual maturation that must pass through marriage. Moore's Tell Me, Tell Me offers a depathologized temporal model of celibacy by unfolding a life narrative that does not punish the “old maid” for being developmentally “late.” Celibacy is usually understood as pure potential: its future is unwritten, unacted on, leaving open the threatening possibility that celibacy can take on any sexual character. Rather than see the celibate as desiring something lacking or as embodying a disjunction between desire and practice, Moore's volume posits a coextensive desire and practice, suggesting a theory of celibate desire.
Skip Nav Destination
Benjamin Kahan; “THE Viper's Traffic-Knot”: Celibacy and Queerness in the “Late” Marianne Moore. GLQ 1 October 2008; 14 (4): 509–535. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-2008-003
Download citation file: