The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment 
by Alan Sinfield.
Cassell, 216 pp., £10.99, July 1994, 0 304 32905 3
Show More
Cultural Politics: Queer Reading 
by Alan Sinfield.
Routledge, 105 pp., £25, November 1994, 0 415 10948 5
Show More
Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford 
by Linda Dowling.
Cornell, 173 pp., £21.50, June 1994, 0 8014 2960 9
Show More
Show More

The newspapers covering the trial in 1895 found it difficult to put the hideous words into print. Most hoped that those who needed to know would know enough already. Others assumed that a lacuna would be explicit of indecency: ‘“Oscar Wilde posing as —”’ was how the Marquess’s offending calling-card appeared in the Evening Standard. Lord Queensberry’s ‘Somdomite’ was displaying his characteristic ineffability by causing the tongue to stumble and producing gaps in public discourse.

In recent years, some would argue, those gaps have been filled to overflowing. Lesbian articles, queer essays and gay books cover the shelves of shops and libraries. Conferences on ‘the love that dared not ...’ pack the conference-halls. In fact, so far has homosexuality come from muzzlement that the production of words threatens to outrun the supply of authors, ideas and things to say. But in the midst of all these words, something strange is now being observed. In lecture theatres all over the world speakers and their questioners have started to stammer once again. Fingers hover falteringly over the keyboard. The words which have been so serviceable for so long seem suddenly inappropriate. At the heart of the din of discursive production, language is beginning to fail once more. Homosexual, for instance, having had its fifteen minutes of fame is now to be cast into the wastepaper basket of obsolescent categories, alongside the hysterics and the possessed. Gay won’t do for anything or anyone before the ‘gay moment’ of June 1969. It will take a little while to forget the injuries committed in sodomite’s name, and since it acquired a ‘daft’ and a ‘silly’, bugger has wandered uselessly far from relevance.

In the absence of these words, authors are floundering in periphrasis. ‘Sexual Dissidence and Cultural Change’ is what they call their MA course at Sussex (where Alan Sinfield teaches), which is not far, I guess, from what used to be called ‘Homosexuality in History’ with some adultery and masturbation thrown in, perhaps, for good measure. Same-sex passion is Sinfield’s preferred term in The Wilde Century, although he is also fond of queer. Queer is in fact the most common solution to this modern crisis of utterance, a word so well-travelled it is equally at home in 19th-century drawing-rooms, accommodating itself to whispered insinuation, and on the streets of the Nineties, where it raises its profile to that of an empowering slogan shouted on gay marches from New York to Sydney: ‘We’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going shopping’ being one of the more memorable choruses. Queer is a word so direct it cannot be serious, linguistic camp that never leaves the house without the inverted commas that mark its issue from the mouths of others being firmly, but discreetly, strapped on.

In a large crowd or on a T-shirt, queer can be liberating and disarming, but in a study of cultural change it produces nothing but confusion, as Sinfield himself can demonstrate:

For us, it is hard to regard Wilde as other than the apogee of gay experience and expression, because that is the position we have accorded him in our cultures. For us, he is always – already queer – as that stereotype has prevailed in the 20th century (for the sake of clarity, I write ‘queer’ for that historical phase – not contradicting, thereby, its recent revival among activists – and ‘gay’ for post-Stonewall kinds of consciousness).

The bewildered reader imagines he has just about got the hang of this new lingo and these two kinds of queer, when he notices a claim on the back cover that his trials made of Oscar Wilde ‘the most famous queer man since Socrates’ and finds himself back at square one.

This sudden and unexpected reappearance of lacunae and periphrasis is a symptom of the triumph of social constructionism in gay studies. The idea has been around for quite a while – it is usually traced back to an article by Mary MacIntosh entitled ‘The Homosexual Role’ in the 1968 edition of the journal Social Problems. Foucault placed constructionism in a broader intellectual framework and souped it up with a rhetoric of epigrammatic opacity. His followers transformed it into a more transparent statement of radical effrontery. In Jeffrey Weeks’s by now classic formulation: ‘Social processes construct subjectivities not just as categories but at the level of individual desires.’ The emergence of the term homosexual at the end of the 19th century marked not merely the discovery of a new type of desiring subject but its creation.

After its comprehensive takeover of the academy in the Eighties, constructionism has more recently begun an advance into the vernacular. By about 1991, it had got as far as the local pub, where it furrowed the brow of a student-nurse from Bristol with whom I was talking on the subject of gay history: ‘But I thought there wasn’t any. It’s a modern thing isn’t it, being gay? Something that started in the 19th century,’ she said. In the autumn of that year Gilbert and George were very agitated on the subject in an interview with the Independent on Sunday: ‘In the 18th century, every man was bisexual,’ says Gilbert. ‘It wasn’t even called that; it was just being a gentleman,’ says George. ‘He would have a wife and a friend. It’s only fashion that makes people think that they personally like this kind of sex or that kind of sex. It’s conditioning: people are just dragged along by conditioning.’

For Foucault, the homosexual personage was born as part and parcel of the modern episteme, which set the parameters for medical, legal and proto-sociological thinking about sex in the later 19th century. Foucault gave him a precise date of birth in 1870, with the appearance of Carl Westphal’s article on ‘contrary sexual feelings’ in the Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten. The homosexual word made its debut in English at the end of the century, in an 1892 translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis. It was in May of that year that Oscar Wilde received a ‘very pathetic’ letter from Lord Alfred Douglas, of whom he had hitherto been no more than a casual acquaintance, appealing to him for help with regard to a rentboy who was threatening blackmail, and inaugurating thereby a friendship which came to fruition three years later in libel suits, bankruptcy and hard labour.

The more or less simultaneous arrival at the same Fin-de-Siècle party of the sociopathico-psycho-medico-homosexual personage and Oscar Wilde has been too much of a provocation for all but the most self-disciplined imagination. But the distance between the two is by no means easy to bridge. Oscar himself was notoriously less than obliging in terms of statements of gay identity, let alone gay pride, although he had more than a casual acquaintance with the literature of sexual madness, which quickly incorporated him into its pages – ‘the most horrible form of erotomania’ was how he described his condition in a petition to the Home Secretary sent from Reading Gaol. If there is a need for gay heroes there seem to be more heroic candidates. On the other hand, Saint Oscar suffered so much for breaking the rules of a heterosexist society that it would seem excessively severe for gay posterity to rebuke him for being a ‘bad homosexual’ as well, and few of the alternatives can match him for glamour and charm. Anyway, even if he himself had been unwilling to take up a place in gay history, the trials left him no choice in the matter. Wilde may not have provided a heroic gesture or a founding literature of identity, but the sequence of events initiated by the Marquess’s calling-card provided a time and a place in which that identity could be forged. He may not have produced a queer manifesto but he may well have precipitated the ‘queer moment’.

That at least is Sinfield’s thesis in The Wilde Century. He accepts Foucault’s basic theory, but like many of his followers rejects the concept of a decisive break between one episteme and the next in favour of a more untidy process, a Lévi-Straussian kind of bricolage: ‘The dominant 20th-century queer identity ... has been constructed ... mainly out of elements that came together at the Wilde trials: effeminacy, leisure, idleness, immorality, luxury, insouciance, decadence and aestheticism.’ The Wilde Century traces the history of these pieces of the puzzle and examines the processes by which they all coalesced for the first time in 1895.

While entertaining a strong scepticism about the naturalness and universality of many of the things commonly called natural and universal, I find the theory of the social creation of sexuality too much to take. Desire and ideology may be linked in all kinds of ways, but that does not make them the same thing. Lusting over the boy in the Herb Ritts poster and believing in the truth of Das Kapital are, in an important sense, quite different processes. In fact, it is becoming clear that the dogma of its social construction can actually be damaging to a full and nuanced account of how sexuality is constructed within a society. In place of a single transhistorical difference which is figured and disfigured in a whole host of representations in myriad contexts, what used to be called homosexuality has been broken up by constructionists into a small set of discrete units much more rigidly conceived. Some have attempted to produce this fracture along a temporal axis by means of a double distortion: overemphasising the Otherness of sexuality in past societies, while underestimating the diversity within them. Sinfield, on the other hand, allows some bizarre historical continuities, but sees practitioners of ‘same-sex passion’ at any one moment in history as a series of separate types. For instance, he denies that the mollies of the early 18th century are true precursors of 20th-century ‘queers’, but he does allow that they formed a subculture, which ‘continues, recognisably, through the 19th century (for instance, in the persons of Fanny and Stella in 1870 and Quentin Crisp in 1940), to the present day.’ Or again, ‘a same-sex coterie may well have flourished at the court of Queen Elizabeth, around the Earl of Southampton, and may have involved a same-sex identity recognisably continuous with that experienced by some men today.’

The queer who emerges at the end of the 19th century may be a new composite but he quickly takes his place alongside these other ‘same-sex’ types as a solid entity. Sinfield thinks that by fragmenting what was previously considered a unity he is getting rid of Essence, that great bogey of cultural theory. But what has happened instead is that, having been let loose by the constructionists from a secure but inconsequential confinement in nature, the biological body or the world outside, Essence is now free to turn up at any point in history and give shape and form to an assortment of words and styles. Rather than a collection of ambivalent images, labels and caricatures that authors and satirists attempt to impose on a complex, chaotic and ultimately intractable marginal field, the types out of which the queer is constructed – the effeminate, the aesthete, the decadent etc – are treated as distinct and carefully delimited three-dimensional forms at large in English society. This is not so much bricolage as Lego.

There is another problem with Sinfield’s approach. Because of the intimate complicity between the world and the discourse of the world demanded by constructionism, the old lessons about the often difficult and perverse relationship between the two are forgotten. The casual interleaving of life and literature has become a familiar feature of the work of less thoughtful critics in the New Historicist camp, but it is extraordinary that someone who sees himself as a cultural materialist pays such scant regard to the materiality of texts. Instead of asking who is writing and for whom, literature becomes simply a manifestation of the zeitgeist, by turns a reflection of the world and its blueprint. The typologies of the stage – the rake, the fop and the dandy – are transferred without modification into life. The very different kinds of testimony represented by diaries and novels are spliced together more or less indiscriminately as witnesses to the advance of new kinds of pervert.

At first sight, Sinfield’s second new book, Cultural Politics: Queer Reading, makes up for this deficiency by presenting us with the other side of the coin, stressing the position from which writers write and readers approach their texts. Instead of the world being viewed through literature, literature is refracted through the multifaceted lens of the world. He attacks the fetishisation of the canon under the banner of absolute literary values and hopes are raised that the words which define and fix identities with a lexicographer’s obduracy in The Wilde Century are now to be allowed out to play, free to engage with the different readings of a whole multi-culture of suggestive subjectivities: women and blacks, Asians and Jews, gays, queers, lesbians and homosexuals. Any sense of liberation is short-lived, however, and before long lines have been drawn in the sand and apartheid imposed. In one corner, Jews produce Jewish readings of anti-Jewish plays; in another, gay men produce gay readings of gay poetry. A self-righteous tone modulates the Professor’s voice and writers are reminded of the obligations they owe to their communities. Sinfield makes a better critic than historian, and Cultural Politics has more interesting things to say than The Wilde Century. But both, unfortunately, represent cultural studies of a rather crude and thoughtless kind.

Wilde is also the ultimate destination of Linda Dowling’s Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford, although the route she takes to get there is quite different from Sinfield’s, encompassing ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, denunciations of effeminacy in Blackwood’s Magazine and Jowett’s reforms of the Oxford Classics curriculum. The queer moment she sets up as her goal also occurred during the trials, in the final week of April 1895 to be precise. The Crown prosecutor had been enlarging on the charge of gross indecency in especially graphic terms: young men had been coaxed into ‘giving their bodies, or selling them, to other men for the purpose of sodomy’. In his peroration Wilde countered this pungent realism with an alternative and ideal image of a ‘pure’, ‘perfect’ and ‘intellectual’ love between men, ‘such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare’, an image which was greeted with immediate and enthusiastic applause by the audience. It is the archaeology of this apologia and the applause it encountered that Dowling seeks to uncover.

Hers is a quieter, less sensational account of Wilde’s century but she does provide one or two of those moments of revelation, estrangement and understanding which mark the best historical work, pursuing her quarry with a sustained concentration that gives the book a greater intellectual clarity than Sinfield’s. Instead of seeing the Greeks in general, and Plato in particular, as naturally enjoying a triumphant position in the intellectual cosmology of the élite she carefully reconstructs the battle to put them there. Instead of simply accepting the rhetoric of effeminacy and degeneracy in pamphlets and essays of the period as dull echoes of an ancient and by now meaningless commonplace, she restores to them their historical specificity and watches their usage change and develop. It’s true that she nails her flag just as firmly as Sinfield to Foucault’s mast, but unlike Sinfield she does not presume to account for the creation of the queer personage. Free of this heavy burden she is able to trace the history of the rise of Hellenism in Oxford, and of its increasing use as a tool of legitimation for Uranian apologists, with a great deal more subtlety and flexibility.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences