During the first year of my undergraduate degree in English Literature and Creative Writing (I wasn’t always a Women in German Studies!) I took a module called “Why Write?”. A few weeks ago, as I defended my PhD thesis on sexological and psychoanalytic life writings, the thought occurred that perhaps I never quite got over that question, asked almost ten years ago. The driving force behind my doctoral research was an interest in finding out why early twentieth-century gender and sexual “deviants” wrote about their lives, or wrote about queer life in a (pseudo-)autobiographical way. What is it that life writing can do that the psychoanalytic case study or the sexological questionnaire can’t? Why write?
My thesis paid attention to the crucial yet largely overlooked literary dimensions of German sexological and psychoanalytic life writing. More than a focus, my thesis had a purpose of turning away from a certain viewpoint. I wanted to focus on queer life writings neither as confirming sexological or psychoanalytic discourses, merely perpetuating their scientific claims, nor as transgressing and rebelling against the gender and sexual norm. Instead, I showed that queer life writings display the possibilities – as well as the impossibilities – for achieving a livable life in the negotiation of a transformative gender identity. In doing so, I revealed that the life writers I discussed are not objective observers, but active participants in the creation and critique of sexual and scientific knowledge.
The texts I discussed range from the canonical – Daniel Paul Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (1901) – to the obscure – N.O. Body’s Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren and Walter Homann’s Tagebuch einer männlichen Braut (both 1907). These life writings can be considered as queer in a double sense: they are concerned with sexual or gender identities that cannot always be categorised straightforwardly by such terms as heterosexuality, homosexuality or transgender. But they are also hybrid texts that are often neither autobiographical nor fictional and as a result they are often neglected by critics today, or by the study of literature proper.
I enjoyed immensely all the distractions offered by my research: my weeks at the Library of Congress, searching through the Sigmund Freud Collection for traces of the Wolf Man but happily distracted by descriptions of Freud’s interaction with his dogs and what it felt like to wait in Dr Freud’s waiting room to be called for analysis; working as expert advisor for an exhibition that compared Magnus Hirschfeld’s legacy to Miami’s World Erotic Art Museum; cycling across Tempelhofer Feld during my year in Berlin at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School.
I am also extremely grateful that I was able to remain unfaithful to any one discipline. Although the way in which I approached my primary texts was from the position of a literary scholar, my research took me into the history of sexuality, cultural studies, and queer and gender studies. I even got a chance to co-facilitate a radically cross-disciplinary workshop with a statistician. Together with Sir David Spiegelhalter, I discussed how human sexuality in all its diversity can – or can’t – be documented.
In all this, I’m not sure I ever answered the question “why write?”. After way too many job applications, I had almost forgotten that research isn’t actually about answering all the questions. To me, the PhD provided an experience of intense literary practice and inquiry, a process of transformation and becoming not completely unalike those described by the texts I studied, and a sustained commitment to a body of text that demands attention (quite literally pleading for it in the foreword). Most of all, I now know the freedom (and the dread) of owning my own time during full-time research.
Ina Linge recently completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge under the supervision of Professor Andrew Webber. Her research was funded by the AHRC and King’s College Cambridge. As the current AHRC Cultural Engagement Fellow at the Department of German and Dutch at the University of Cambridge she is working on the Sex in Six Objects project
For more about Ina’s research interests see: