“Port to Port”: Queer Temporality in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours
“The only way to get outside the dualisms is to be-between, to pass between, the intermezzo—that is what Virginia Woolf lived with all her energies, in all of her work never ceasing to become.”
Gilles Deleuze (Sedgwick 401)
Some of today’s leading queer theorists are engaged in an emerging discourse of ‘queer temporality,’ their dialogue concerning the ways in which the dominant heterosexual worldview has shaped the experience and expectation of time. In attempting to envision and analyze the queer temporal experience specifically, this theory explores and interprets other temporal shapes and directionalities both independent of and in relationship to that schema already established and reinforced by the heterosexual ownership of history (Freeman).
Kate Haffey’s article, “Exquisite Moments and the Temporality of the Kiss in Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours” (2010), establishes the appropriateness of both novels as locations for the discussion of sexually oriented experiences of time. Narrative and storytelling, Haffey asserts, work to both construct and reinforce expectations of temporal experience. The ‘happily ever after’ motif, for example, Haffey identifies as the repetition of a heterosexual expectation that bliss can be achieved through courtship, marriage, and reproduction (in that order). The fairy tale’s temporality is therefore linear and powerful, building upon itself so that every scene is a step closer to marriage, to reproduction, and to a progeny-dependent futurity that is never ending.
Haffey cites Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay, “The Queer Moment,” in Sedgwick’s 1993 collection, Tendencies, for a different angle on temporal experience. Queer temporality, Sedgwick explains, is made up of exquisite “moments” that eddy outside the linear current of heterosexual futurity and recur without need of furthering the dominant narrative of progress toward immortality. Such eddying occurs as Clarissa Vaughn experiences her kiss in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Michael Cunningham continues this theme of nonlinearity in The Hours, multiplying the setup’s potential variations to tell the interwoven stories of several romantic relationships taking place in different locations and time periods. Cunningham’s re-imagining of Woolf’s 1925 novel at once illustrates the distinctions queer theorists have identified between sexually determined experiences of time, heterosexual and queer, and works to trouble oppositional notions of sexuality. Cunningham’s multiple and fractured representation of both identity and desire resonates with the field’s developing notion of the “queer moment” (Sedgwick), also laying bare an extreme anxiety surrounding, or more specifically in-between, essentialist categories of sexual orientation. The Hours brings into question the use and meaning of the term “queer” within the emerging field of queer temporality, encouraging further imaginings of various temporal experience across and in between established expectations.
Like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours features Clarissa Vaughn as a character whose ‘exquisite moment’ comes as a kiss, hers to a predominantly gay man whom she loves and has had a past love affair with (in between her other usually female partners). Clarissa has since cohabited with her girlfriend, Sally, in a monogamous relationship that, although same-sex, closely resembles a traditional marriage. The memory of Clarissa’s ‘exquisite moment’ with Richard returns to Clarissa again and again, even as she pursues her own ‘ever after’ with Sally:
She could, she thinks, have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself. Or then again maybe not, Clarissa tells herself. That’s who I was. That’s who I am- a decent woman with a good apartment, with a stable and affectionate marriage, giving a party. Venture too far for love, she tells herself, and you renounce citizenship in the country you’ve made for yourself. You end up just sailing from port to port. (Cunningham 97)
Clarissa’s inner monologue raises the question of belonging. She has chosen to live her life as a lesbian yet continues to feel the potential in herself for more and multiple desires. Clarissa could have pursued other attractions, to Richard for example, and the possibility remains. Clarissa asks herself whether the security of her singularly lesbian lifestyle is exciting enough to be satisfying. We begin to recognize the familiar refrain of “is it queer enough?”
The irony of Clarissa’s situation, however, is that the sexual orientation of her questioning is reversed. The more radical relationship for Clarissa, a lesbian, would have been a heterosexual love affair with a gay man. By twisting the narrative of ‘queerness’ from same-sex to opposite-sex, Cunningham disrupts our notion of the queer moment as necessarily homosexual and spotlights the temporally ‘queer’ aspect of the moment as distinct from the sexual orientation that it performs. Clarissa’s maturity and independence surpass her initially essentialist self-questioning. She knows that her lesbian desire is not entirely defined by a revolutionary or transgressive purpose and no longer feels the competitive urge to be the most radical. Her lesbianism can assume a more traditional “marriage” model and she tells herself that she is content. However, Clarissa’s own potential for multiplicity has become the location of her anxiety, so much so that she fears change. She has lived both heterosexual and lesbian orientations; a fact that suggests to her that she may not truly belong to either. Clarissa fears her own abjection to the void in between, which she describes as “sailing from port to port.”
A reification of these separate, and oppositional, categories of experience, as determined by sexual orientation, is initially apparent in the emerging discussion of queer temporality. Haffey describes the linear heterosexist versus nonlinear eddying of temporal narratives. The dichotomy between linear futurity and disregard for reproductive eternity is the focus of Edelman’s seminal book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). Edelman was among the first to examine conceptions of temporal experience as dominated and determined by the heterosexual, and he asserts that procreation puts forth a myth of reproductive futurity to which heterosexuals are slaves. The expectation of the heterosexual majority is to live forever through genetic reproduction, an entitlement that at once privileges and defines heterosexuality and its experience. Along this physiological differentiation, Edelman defines queer sex as that which is without thought to reproduction. Queers, Edelman suggests, actively discard the heterosexual purpose to procreate so that each coming is indeed a ‘little death’ (to take the direct translation of the French term for orgasm, la petite mort). Edelman posits this lack of sexual endgame in queer relationships- satisfaction via pleasure versus a need for immortality- as the reason for the heterosexual establishment being so threatened by even the existence of homosexuality.
This physiologically based binary plays out in The Hours’ narrative of a romance arising between two neighboring housewives. Laura Brown and Kitty both appear at first to perform the heterosexual temporality that Edelman details. Kitty represents the myth of futurity. She is the “untouchable essence that a man…dreams of, yearns toward” (Cunningham 109). As the object of heterosexual desire, Kitty symbolizes the purpose to procreate. Then she acknowledges that her marriage remains childless because she may in fact not be physically capable of having children. Kitty asks her neighbor, Laura Brown, to feed her dog while she goes in for a medical procedure, and it occurs to Laura that Kitty may not, after all, make it to that “hale, leathery, fifty-year-old” (109). Laura had imagined Kitty aging, but Kitty may not live on at all. With her fertility in question, Kitty is denied reproductive futurity as well. Her physical limitations prevent her from successfully performing the heterosexual script.
Kitty’s admission of infertility coincides with Laura Brown’s own failure to perform the cultural representation of a straight temporality. The 1950s era housewife represents a quotidian fairy tale ending, as Haffey described, and Laura has succeeded in all the stops along the way to this goal. Cunningham outlines the progress of Laura Brown’s courtship to Dan, their marriage, followed by their son Richie’s arrival. At such a point, post-climax, post-reproduction, heterosexual temporality should cue ‘happily ever after,’ and Laura has in many ways upheld this expectation. She “makes good coffee carelessly… lives in this house where no one wants, no one owes, no one suffers. She is pregnant with another child” (107). Yet despite her best attempts, the happily ever after does not come. In the kitchen scene where Kitty reveals her inability to procreate, Laura Brown’s self-doubt concerning her own flawed performance of the heterosexual script compounds. Her inconsistent engagement with her child, symbolized by a bad birthday cake, stares at her as an accusation of failure. Both Kitty and Laura’s shortcomings in the heterosexual expectation, both cultural and physiological, cast them into queerness, and the women kiss. The demonstrated conversion between expectations of temporal experience prompts a change in both characters’ behavior.
The parameters of heterosexual and queer temporality, as set forth by Edelman, mirror Cunningham’s representation of linear heterosexual temporality and the same-sex ‘exquisite moment.’ It would appear that the temporal experience and sexual desire of both characters switch seamlessly, with no locatable space in between the expression of identity within categories of sexual orientation and corresponding temporal narrative. Their lesbian kiss, a transforming moment with no goal of futurity whatsoever, satisfies the expectations of a queer temporal structure such as Sedgwick describes. Laura does not want a relationship with Kitty but nonetheless cannot stop thinking about their kiss. The failure of Laura Brown and Kitty to perform the heterosexual temporality, its physiological or narrative expectations, prompts both characters into moments of ‘queer’ attraction.
In her book, The Queer Art of Failure (2011), Judith Halberstam broadens Edelman’s theory of reproduction-based temporal experience to include other forms of “queer” lifestyle. Interpreting Edelman’s No Future as an assertion that “death and finitude are the very meaning of queerness,” Halberstam goes on to find the queer’s behavioral disinterest and/or inability to “succeed” in the heterosexual expectation of procreation as an opportunity for reversal (Halberstam 106). Halberstam situates the absence of queers from traditional markers of heteronormative success, reproductive or otherwise, as evidence of a purposeful and stylized form of losing. The result of this reframing is the transformation of outsidership into a radical way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power. Much as Adrienne Rich re-envisioned the spinster as a purposeful repudiation of compulsory heterosexuality and a subversion of male power, Halberstam’s theory of failure shows “that alternatives are embedded already in the dominant and that power is never total or consistent” (88). Queerness and heterosexuality are entwined and relational. Halberstam references the artist Tracy Moffat, whose photographs capture the expressions of fourth place ‘losers’ at the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, Australia. Moffat’s images spotlight the “(non)place” that queers inhabit outside of recorded history, insisting upon a record of not only their participation, but also their failure in the face of a ludicrously narrow conception of success (93). While Moffat’s photographs capture the moment of “losing,” both rendering it visible and emphasizing the absurd relativity of assignments of achievement, their example also serves to further a divisive sports analogy. The phrase “queer aesthetic” in this context even invokes an image of different colored uniforms, opposing teams as it were.
Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure is an extremely valuable reversal, a necessary perspective shift and voice of rightful pride in a lifestyle that has been rendered other and illegitimate. Although the very existence of a winner and a loser implies a competition is taking place, Halberstam’s analogy works instead to show the truly relational definitions of “gayness” and “straightness” (one cannot exist without the other). So too, Cunningham’s novel appears at first to portray Laura Brown and Kitty’s default to the queer moment from their initially reproductive and linear heterosexual expectations. Yet both women remain married, Laura with children. Attractions and behaviors exist between the strictly homosexual and heterosexual, of which Clarissa Vaughn is an example. How then can we locate transitions of temporal experience that occupy this space between the as yet set forth mutual exclusivity of hetero and queer categories?
Halberstam’s expansion of Edelman’s losing at reproduction into broader realms of behavior draws attention to the exclusion of same-sex couples and single homosexuals (of either sex) who desire children, transsexuals who have reproduced before transitioning, as well as heterosexuals who have no intention of reproducing. Indeed, Halberstam’s work seems to self-consciously focus upon the ‘team’ mentality eclipsed by the visibility of the LGBTQ continuum and the progress made toward acceptance of flexible identities. The reader wonders how theories of queer temporality will evolve as sexuality study expands to meet a multiplicity of identities and behaviors beyond gay and straight. Will there be space for uncloseted gays excelling in culturally privileged arenas such as business or entertainment? Advances in fertility medicine and evolving state laws surrounding the definition of marriage enable everyone to have biological children, in wedlock or outside, and while the availability of this option may currently rely upon financial wealth, the rapidity of political and pharmaceutical change suggests that this may not always be the case. The absence of these exceptions from the discourse of queer temporality not only privileges fixed definitions of what it means to be both gay and straight, but elides more orientations from the visible world. As definitions and expectations develop within the expanding field of queer temporality, does the discussion turn once again to what is ‘queer?’
My purpose here is certainly not to determine beyond a doubt the dominant orientations of Cunningham’s fictional characters—for how would one calculate this based upon limited and perhaps purposely ambiguous pages of representation? And what import could these fictional characters’ definitions possibly bring to the autonomous lives and behaviors of readers? Although there is little to be gained from the exercise of defining the identities of these characters, their anxiety surrounding such essentialist categories, or teams, as Halberstam alluded to, is evident in each narrative thread of Cunningham’s novel. His characters are capable of performing more than just one identity. In fact, the anxieties Cunningham describes appear most often to be addressing the challenge of achieving a singular performance. The impossibility of being just one person, one role or one singular sexual desire, echoes through The Hours. Clarissa Vaughn’s anxiety about the multiplicity of her own sexually oriented performance causes her to fear outsidership. Looking at the objects she owns in her domestic life with Sally, Clarissa Vaughn “feels the presence of her own ghost; the part of her most destructibly alive and least distinct; the part that owns nothing” (Cunningham 91). Clarissa’s recognition of her own multiplicity manifests in her fear of not belonging, but instead being relegated to an adrift and wayward status, outside the homo/hetero binary. The in between “ghost” that she describes as “sailing from port to port” exists in banishment from both the worlds of the living and the dead, expressing the liminal space between essentialist categories of identity. Interestingly, the worlds of the living and the dead between which a ghost may be caught relates to Edelman’s language of heterosexual reproductive futurity and the queer’s sphere of death and dying. Clarissa recognizes her own need for an acknowledgement of the space in between these oppositional worlds and their categorical temporalities.
Laura Brown also recognizes the fracture of her singular self when she pauses with her son, “motionless, watching each other, and for a moment she is precisely what she appears to be: a pregnant woman kneeling in a kitchen with her three-year-old son…She is the perfect picture of herself; there is no difference” (76). Laura’s acknowledgement that she does have other identities, and the realization that her own performance is inconsistent, focuses upon her intention, albeit failed, to perform only her role as ideal housewife and mother. Laura’s anxiety surrounds her understanding of the unacceptability of duplicitous desire and performance within the heterosexual narrative. Cunningham emphasizes the necessary splintering of the self when performance of multiple roles and categories of identity are required.
Cunningham extends his awareness of the performative aspect of identity to his representation of Virginia Woolf in his novel as well. “Virginia walks through the door. She feels fully in command of the character who is Virginia Woolf” (84). The roles of author and character are rendered relational here, each affecting the other in a dialectic that demonstrates the capacity of identity expressions to interact with one another. Cunningham seems to imply that authorship itself entails a fracturing of one’s persona to generate literary characters. The consistency with which Cunningham represents a multiplicity of identity performances works at once to ‘normalize’ highly personal and flexible notions of self and, perhaps more importantly, to voice the anxieties that surround the specific expectations and consequences of said performance in categories of sexual orientation.
Anxiety over identity and belonging is not surprising given the prevailingly dichotomous structure of sexuality discourse as represented by the texts this paper has surveyed thus far. One instance of the liminal space created by the oppositional staging of gay and straight sexualities can be found in the prevalence of biphobia. Beth A. Firestein’s 1996 anthology, Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority, addresses the prevalence of biphobia and the double discrimination that bisexuals face from heterosexual, and homosexual communities. Bisexuality challenges the categories with which the queer movement is attempting to establish a coherent identity expression.Paula C. Rust’s 1995 book, Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics: Sex, Loyalty, and Revolution, surveyed lesbian women and found that “many doubt bisexuality exists…and are generally consistent in seeing bisexuality as having no distinct politics of its own” (Michel 538). The bisexual woman’s anxiety concerning a lack of true belonging to either heterosexual or lesbian communities is exacerbated by the likelihood that the bisexual may share neither the same gender nor the same sexual orientation as their partner; both personal as well as political outsidership results, reinforcing the biphobic erasure of this population. Clarissa’s metaphor of “port to port” intimates the deep expanse in between binary categories and the negative space into which so many, including bisexuals, often fall. The oceanic metaphor carries forward into Halberstam’s queering of the Olympic games as an event for which individuals of opposing countries separated by oceans meet to compete for success. The ‘adrift’ outsider is excluded from competition entirely and therefore resigned also to the un-photographed, the absent, and unremembered. In fact, Halberstam established this exclusion to be precisely the queer aesthetic.
We see here a contradiction of terms within the foundational vocabulary of the discourse of queer temporality. Those individuals excluded from Edelman and Halberstam’s initial categories of temporal experience on the grounds of ‘not queer enough,’ or ‘not straight enough,’ do, by virtue of the dominant binary narrative’s refusal to recognize their politics, their liminal status, and their failure to succeed in winning acceptance by either team- these individuals are in fact performing ‘a queer art of failure,’ as Halberstam defined. Failure to succeed in either or just one category of temporal experience sheds light upon the as yet negative space between “ports” in the early establishment of a queer temporality, raising the question again, is it queer enough?
It may be useful to consult Donald Hall’s 2003 book, Queer Theories, to clarify the definition of the term “queer,” and whether or not a disparity has evolved between the term “queer” and its use in the dialectic of temporality. Hall surveys many scholars in his effort to pinpoint the definition of queerness and its particular goal and advantage as an analytical lens, finding it to signify much more than same-sex desire. Hall cites Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies, in which she further divorces the term queer from resolute homosexuality. “One of the things ‘queer’ can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality are made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (qtd. in Hall 70). Citing performance theorist Sue-Ellen Case, Hall asserts, “queer theory, unlike lesbian theory or gay male theory, is not gender specific. In fact, like the term ‘homosexual,’ queer foregrounds same-sex desire without designating which sex is desiring” (55). In this way, ‘queer’ serves as an umbrella term for gay, working to unite disparate populations, sexes, genders, and orientations toward the common cause of awareness and rights for alternative sexualities outside dominant heteronormativity. But Hall further differentiates the gay-rights reclamation of the noun queer, meaning homosexual, from a ‘queer’ adjective describing the theoretical lens put forth by Foucault and interpreted by David Halperin in his 1995 study, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography:
Unlike gay identity, which, though deliberately proclaimed in an act of affirmation, is nonetheless rooted in positive fact of homosexual object-choice, queer identity need not be grounded in any positive truth or in any stable reality...Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers… (55)
These examples of historical renderings and advantages of the term ‘queer’ illustrate the ways in which its different parts of speech have been adopted to multiple purposes, all the time serving to offer variation from the ‘normalized’ sexual orientation, power dynamic, or analytical framework. As Hall asserts in his introduction, “the concept ‘queer’ emphasizes the disruptive, the fractured, the tactical and contingent” (5). As this emphasis distinguishes between ‘queer’ as a sexual practice and the term’s significance as a lens of analysis in regard to ‘queer theory,’ I will put forth Hall’s broadly useful definition of the adjective ‘queer’ in this investigation of the field of “queer temporality.” Queerness, as Hall says, “is to abrade the classifications, to sit athwart conventional categories or traverse several” (13).
After illustrating a binary of hetero and homosexual temporal narrative structures, Cunningham’s depiction of Clarissa Vaughn’s performance of desire assists in re-imagining a ‘queer moment’ that is not simply same-sex desire but an attraction and behavior outside and in between any one singular performance of desire within the binary. In order to achieve this, The Hours calls attention to the moments of transition between oppositional identities. Laura and Kitty’s moment, for example, is the conversion of their desire and performance of temporality from heterosexual to homosexual. Similarly, Clarissa and Richard’s kiss reflects a moment of transformation in which they both express heterosexual desire. The queer moment, Cunningham suggests, is not necessarily that of same-sex behavior, but the fluidity of an expression of desire beyond demarcations of gay and straight. Cunningham’s focus upon ‘exquisiteness’ can be characterized as this moment of transcendence of categories.
The potential for more voices joining the field of queer temporality all but ensures the eventual evolution of categorical definitions. Jose Esteban Muñoz’s book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, with a title noticeably in contrast to both Edelman and Halberstam’s focus upon endings, asserts that “queerness is essentially about…insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (Muñoz 1). Muñoz’s language makes clear that the singular and definitive category is unnecessary, for queerness is “a mode of being not quite there but nonetheless an opening, utopian feelings indispensable to the act of imaging transformation” (9). Creating or performing the new ‘image’ or act of that next potential, its behavioral expression, is significant. This is what Cunningham’s characters enact in their queer moments. Clarissa describes her exquisite kiss as exactly the embodiment of perceived potential. “Richard was the person Clarissa loved at her most optimistic moment” (Cunningham 97). Years later, having recalled their kiss again and again, Clarissa still feels that “perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more” (98). The queer moment persists and returns again and again because of its ability to transcend the singular.
Despite the ability of queer theorists to disrupt essentialist categories of identity, as well as the past several decades’ emphasis upon unsettling binaries of gender and sexuality via the LGBTQ continuum, early discussions in queer temporality at times reify an oppositional staging of gender and sexual distinctions. The assertion of such separate categories needlessly flattens the diversity of experience as well as the breadth of the term queer. As performances of same-sex and opposite-sex attraction, as well as the fluidity of sexual and gender identification, become increasingly, and visibly, apparent, the discussion of queer temporality will expand with what Muñoz calls “the anticipatory illumination of the utopian” (Muñoz 11). If “queer studies offers us one method for imagining, not some fantasy of elsewhere, but existing alternatives in hegemonic systems” (Halberstam 89), then this alternative may be in the face of heteronormative dominance, or in reaction to an exclusive binary of queer vs. heterosexual temporalities. The radical and transgressive distinctness upon which lesbian and gay political identities depend will necessarily evolve as communities continue to ‘succeed’ in expressing the multiple, other, indefinable, and as yet of sexual identity. The globe of sexuality studies turns, the queer lens and its voices taken up by other(s), be they bisexual, transgender, asexual, some, or none of these.
The question then becomes not “is it queer enough” but how can queer temporality discussion continue to disrupt its own definitions and expectations, resisting limited and oppositional categories of representation? Michael Cunningham uses narrative temporality in his novel, The Hours, to suggest that the queer moment arises upon transformation, upon conversion, upon the unexpected. The queer moment is in fact the space in between categories of sexual orientation and temporal experience that theorists are still to discuss. The Hours offers an opportunity to expand the discussion of queer temporality and reimagine what that exquisite moment can look or feel like.
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Cecile Berberat grew up in Ohio and Washington DC. She has her MFA in fiction and her Masters of Literature from the University of Montana. Her favorite things are storm clouds and houseboats.