← Previous Post: | Next Post:


For years, I thought the film David and Lisa…

… (which I watched, at far too young an age, in a large dark silent room at my grandfather’s house in Port Deposit Maryland) was titled David and Eve. I remembered the title as David and Eve.

David and Lisa were brilliant, sensitive, lovers who met at a mental institution. Like Heathcliff and Cathy, only they understood each other; to the rest of the world they were bizarre enigmas.

It’s only with the recent deaths of my friend David Kosofsky, and his sister, the literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, that I see why I changed the title. Ten years after I saw that film, when I met the two of them, their brilliance and closeness and sensitivity – and strangeness – must have merged in my mind with the characters in the film.

Although I was David’s high school girlfriend (a fact that angered Eve and made her behave badly toward me), it was never, in my mind, David and Margaret. It was always David and Eve. Like David and Lisa, they shared a verbal and emotional world no one else could enter. Like Emily and the other Brontes, David and his sister had built a Gondal.

As a naive sixteen-year-old, I could sense the unsettling dependency, the charged intimacy, between brother and sister – and I could certainly sense Eve’s hostility toward me – but I couldn’t understand the nature of the relationship, or the hostility. I think it must have mainly registered – to an insecure kid – as intellectual snobbery, for both David and Eve were, at that age, arrogant.

In essays written toward the end of her life, Sedgwick elaborates on what I thought arrogance — elaborates, essentially, on the striking, motiveless cruelty toward me she displayed when I was a vulnerable and non-comprehending sixteen year old. She laments “the almost grotesquely unintelligent design of every human psyche,” and in particular the way attempts to overcome one’s tendency toward ressentiment (“which [Nietzsche] diagnoses as a self-propagating, near-universal psychology compounded of injury, rancor, envy, and self-righteous vindictiveness, fermented by a sense of disempowerment”) only seem to circle back to the same ressentiment. She argues that this vicious circle played out to some extent, for example, in her own field of queer theory, where aggressively projecting, say, envy-ridden, repressed homosexuality onto perceived enemies of gay liberation merely doubles back as an instance of one’s own paranoid hostilities.

In my case, as David’s first serious girlfriend, I suppose I activated (using Sedgwick’s Kleinian scheme) her anxiety at the loss of omnipotence in regard to her younger, adoring brother – an omnipotence he had until this point gladly granted her. This was Klein’s paranoid/schizoid mode – the direction of contempt toward perceived enemies — or, indeed, in the political rather than personal realm, real enemies. Sedgwick laments but understands the way queer theory, in the worst of the AIDS years, exhibited a “surplus” of “paranoid energies.” How could it not? But now (2007) Sedgwick wants “alternative forms of utterance and argument,” not so paranoid, not so self-defeatingly aggressive.

Sedgwick’s right that the human psyche is most unintelligently designed, for she needn’t have bothered activating her ressentiment shields against me. (The larger context of all of this – on which I stumbled decades later – was mental illness, as Sedgwick notes in a 2000 interview:  “I was a mess at that point psychically, which made for a certain contempt for everything around me.”)  As I said, it was always David and Eve, never David and Margaret. I believe she remained, long after David and I had evolved into kindly old friends, long after David had engaged in any number of intense relationships with other women, primary in his life. You could argue that he was her first, most powerful, and most powerfully influenced, student. Her cruelty against me certainly accomplished what must have seemed to her her goal – it made me steer clear of her – yet had she appreciated the extent of her power, she would have realized it was expressing itself in a way not merely wounding to me but totally unnecessary.


Thus Eve’s death in 2009 shattered David; he wrote to me that although he thought he was prepared for it (she had had cancer for almost twenty years), in the event he wasn’t. His uncharacteristic outbursts of anger at me and others conveyed raw bitterness. His big sister, his model for all things affective and intellectual, had suffered for years and had died too soon.

David knew from infancy what all people in the field of literature now know – Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was powerfully charismatic. She pretty much single-handedly, through sheer force of personality and intellect, founded a cultural movement – queer theory. A phrase David often used with me was personal truths – the point, in life, was to discover, and then defend against all ridicule and incomprehension and disdain, the particular modes of being and understanding that you had evolved for yourself. David was learning this all his life with her; the world learned it from her celebrated writing.


David died just two years after Eve, at the same age. She was fifty-eight, and his death, last July, came one day before his own fifty-eighth birthday. Although he had heart trouble, he was, he and everyone else thought, in reasonably good shape. On the day he died, he’d been kayaking.

I suspect that David had such trouble overcoming Eve’s death – he was so demoralized by it – that it weakened his already chancy hold on life.

Eve and David were both depressives (they used to scribble D or ND on the bottom of postcards to each other: DEPRESSED/NOT DEPRESSED). They wrote, privately and publicly, about their tenuous grasp on continued existence. “My lifelong depressiveness” wrote Sedgwick in the essay about Melanie Klein, has “endeared to me the idea of nonbeing.” David claimed never to understand my fear of death; he regarded extinction, he wrote to me once, as an opportunity to rest.

That Klein essay has as its main effort a revisionary take on the experience of depression, a condition almost comically common, as Sedgwick writes, among humanities types. (She quotes a colleague on an admissions committee calling depression “a prerequisite” for entry into their program.) Again following Klein, Sedgwick sees the remorse and passivity of depression as a kind of reaction to one’s frightening and inhumane paranoid/schizoid projections. If those aggressions were a slashing attempt to reconstitute something injuriously broken in the psyche (Sedgwick’s primacy, her omnipotence in regard to her brother, broken, as she perceived it, by me), then the subsequent shrinking into depression would be a despairing admission of that reconstitution’s impossibility, as well as shame for having acted badly.

Yet Sedgwick wants, in her Klein essay, to use depression, to conceive depression, in a different way – a way that might allow one to escape the paranoid/schizoid — depression circle. Depressed is at least better than paranoid/schizoid, since it removes a great amount of destructive aggression from your relations with the world and replaces it with painful but morally reflective degrees of withdrawal… If one could perceive paranoid/schizoid and depressive not as constantly reemergent distortions, but as steps in a narrative toward spiritual illumination, toward transcendence of both polarities, then perhaps something truly good and real could change in oneself and in the world.

Sedgwick imagines, at the very end of her essay, a position beyond the bad karma of paranoid/schizoid and the trying-to-be-good karma of depressive: “[T]he most liberating thing is to have no karma… [I]t’s the figure without karma, the bodhisattva, the ultimate teacher, who is able to perceive and be perceived clearly enough that the things he or she does are efficacious…”


I suppose it’s inevitable, having spent many decades attempting to decode the complex language of David and (to a lesser extent) his sister – that their silence now has me circling the words they left. I circle, for instance, David’s frequent allusions to my own non-depressive disposition. He was amazed at my happiness, especially given all the depression in my family. Plus I’m a humanities professor!

But the reality is that my non-comprehension, as a sixteen-year-old, of Kosofsky-intensity toward the world – toward me – pretty much remains intact. If you say that this is due to the operations of repression, then I’ve spent my life under the darkest of repression-clouds. A more likely explanation, for this Henry Miller rather than Proust fan, involves the mysteries of sensibility – mysteries probably as much biochemical as experiential.

Margaret Soltan, October 30, 2011 3:05PM
Posted in: snapshots from home

Trackback URL for this post:

10 Responses to “For years, I thought the film David and Lisa…”

  1. Chas Says:

    The movie was a sort of touchstone.

    Scene: A van full of Reed College freshmen on the way to the Oregon coast for some kind of “experiential” outing.

    Boy introduces himself: “Hi, I’m David.”

    My new girlfriend replies, “Hi, I’m Lisa.”

    Everyone guffaws.

  2. dmf Says:

    lovely, whatever the causes (likely as mixed and matched as our kluged embodiment) we no doubt fall into stylistic types (of a loose familial resemblance not those awful typologies that are now all the rage in management), have you read James Hillman’s work on Suicide and the Soul? I think you friends may have liked it.

  3. dave.s. Says:

    Some years ago a teacher friend of my mother’s reported to mom that her second-grade class had NINE Lisas in it. Shortly, they figured out that nine years before, the movie had come out. Davids, not such a spike: mommies across America were whelping Daves in huge numbers even before the movie.

  4. janet gool Says:

    When someone dies as unexpectedly and as prematurely as David did, one feels compelled to search for some sort of logic or meaning in their death. When someone who has hurt you dies, then the opportunity for reconcilation dies with them. There is something rather awful in knowing that now it is impossible to put certain things right. So we write.

    I hope your young readers don’t make the mistake of thinking that since two brilliant people suffered from depression, that there is some allure to depression, that it resembles some romantic melancholy. Plenty of very ordinary people suffer from very ordinary depression. As a psychiatric nurse, I’ve had people with depression who were functionally illiterate. Being a basically happy person is a good thing.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    janet: Excellent precaution for my readers – of any age. The tendency to romanticize depression is so strong.

    I don’t think the impossibility of reconciliation is awful. At least it doesn’t feel like that. Maybe like depression, reconciliation is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Some breaks should happen. But trying to understand is a project that never ends.

  6. Michael Tinkler Says:

    Thanks for the reflection – very thoughtful and thought provoking. Among other things, I’ll read queer theory with a different interest now.

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Michael: You’re welcome.

  8. Sunday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion « Clarissa's Blog Says:

    […] A powerful and touching post in memory of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and David Kosofsky. (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is one  of the founders of queer theory). […]

  9. janet gool Says:

    Hello Margaret.
    I think I might be the only person keeping track of this. David’s yartzeit falls on June 23 this year – according to the Jewish calender he died on the third of Tammuz.
    Thought you might want to know.

  10. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Hi Janet! Many thanks for that. Best, Margaret

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE