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Post-sexual ity?

The Wilde Centenary
Joseph Bristow


lmost one hundred years ago to the day, Oscar Wilde found himself in the midst of
the first of three trials that would eventually go against him. Although it was Wilde
who initially sued for libel, the defendant rallied sufficient evidence to have him

sentenced to twenty-four months in solitary confinement with hard labour for having
committed acts of gross indecency with other men. Few historians of sexuality would disagree
that these grisly events of 1895 marked a flashpoint in modern understandings of sexuality. For
it was in the Victorian fin de siecle that a cardinal distinction between homo-and hetero-objectchoice would begin to emerge, and with terrible consequences. Wilde, to be sure, figured
centrally in these debates about wholly antithetical types of sexual identity. No sooner had
Wilde been impugned by Mr Justice Wills for indulging in ‘hideous corruption’ than he
embodied a form of homosexual existence that was subjected both to increasing scrutiny by
sexologists and to downright vilification by the press.

But the process by which Wilde came to be demonized for representing an abhorrent form
of sexuality perhaps surprised him more than anyone else. In 1897, writing to the publisher
Leonard Smithers, he would remark on the rapid rise and fall of his career as a playwright and
critic: ‘Neither to myself, nor others, am I any longer a joy. I am now simply an ordinary
pauper of a rather low order: the fact that I am also a pathological problem in the eyes of
German scientists: and even in their works I am tabulated, and come under the law of
averages! Quantum l1lutatlls!’ Although a great deal of Wilde’ s writing has a fatalistic ring to

it, he did not for one moment imagine that he would be unable to defend himself against the
charge, brought by the illiterate Marquess of Queensberry, that he was ‘posing as Somdomite’

(sic). Indeed, this is the point that Alan Sinfield emphasizes in his recent study, The Wilde
Century (1994). Bearing in mind the circumstantial evidence surrounding Wilde’ s libel suit,

Sinfield concludes that ‘homosexuality was not manifest from Wilde’s style.’ Even if Wilde
was renowned for adopting a dandiacal and flamboyant effeminate manner, he had not,
according to Sinfield, ‘led either his friends or strangers to regard him as obviously, even
probably, queer’. In other words, the connection between effeminacy and homosexuality had
not, before the trials had run their course, assumed a ‘settled correlation’ .

If, in the present fin de siecle, one difficult lesson has had to be learned about the history of
sexuality, it concerns how we should set about establishing appropriate categories that will
enable us to apprehend the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’. Sinfield’s book counts among a
handful of powerful studies that remind us that there is no ‘homosexuality’ before
homosexuality is named as such. ‘It may well be,’ as David M. Halperin puts it in One
Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990), ‘that homosexuality properly speaking has no history

of its own outside the West or much before the beginning of our century.’ Such statements
strongly caution us against jumping to conclusions about naming a love that remained
unnamed or un nameable, and whose contours of desire were shaped by patterns that have been
largely, if not wholly, occluded by our modern insistence on the coherence and timelessness of
homosexuality. So it follows that literary critics such as Linda Dowling have deplored what


Radical Philosophy 71



appear to be reductionist readings of those works of Wilde that seem to imply, but never speak,
the forbidden love that hides within them. In Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford
(1984) – a study that eloquently celebrates the culture of Platonic ‘spiritual procreancy’ that
thrived in the liberal Oxonian ethos enjoyed by Wilde in the 1870s – Dowling grows impatient
with those readings of ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’ (1889; revised 1893) which seek to ‘name
the “love that dare not speak its name” as “homosexuality” or “inversion” or some other name’.

In reductionist analyses, argues Dowling, this ‘other name’ will ‘always be found to constitute
either the sign of its ideological erasure from a dominant discourse that denies public
expression to male love or, alternatively, the sign of [Wilde’s] opposition to that very
discourse’. Instead, Dowling prompts us to consider how ‘Wilde’s very lack of specificity may
itself constitute an aesthetic choice wholly independent of the mechanisms of repression and
resistance’. The answer to this apparent absence of such a ‘name’, for Dowling, lies in how
‘Mr W. H.’ is ‘perfectly expressive’ – rather than evasive or euphemistic – of ‘precisely that
imaginative richness, that many-sidedness and “variety” so central to the socio-cultural agenda
of Victorian Hellenism’: the culture of what Dowling elsewhere calls the Higher Sodomy.

I am highly sensitive to these charges, since the work I developed in the context of a
nascent lesbian and gay studies during the mid-1980s sought to unearth the homosexual subtext
of two of Wilde’s major works: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890; revised 1891) and The
Importance of Being Earnest (1895). (In 1992, I published a student edition of Earnest,

equipped with extensive commentary and footnotes, as well as an edited collection of essays on
lesbian and gay writing entitled Sexual Sameness.) Even though, in retrospect, I can certainly
recognize the nai”vete of my zeal in trying to extract each and every potential same-sex coding
that might be detected throughout these writings, it still strikes me that there is something
significant in what was a wholehearted desire to restitute the gay Wilde, no matter how
anachronistically. There was, indeed, a need to wrest Wilde’s writings from the work of critics
who had barely mentioned the possibility of same-sex desire in those exchanges in Earnest
where we find that Algernon and Jack have been leading a ‘double life’. But the results of such
a strategy would appear almost as misguided as those who never mentioned the iss!le of
homosexuality at all. ‘Many
commentators,’ writes Sinfield, ‘assume
that queerness, like murder, will out … It
might be nice to think of Algernon and
Jack as a gay couple, but most of their
dialogue is bickering about property and
women.’ These protagonists, then, are not
at all like us. They do not represent our
desires – even if we should dearly love
them to, especially in the light of how
Wilde’s sexuality was construed in 1895.

Algernon and Jack are not gay men so the
story goes, because they were not even

This kind of approach has notable
consequences, not just for students of
Wilde’s fiction and drama, but for all of us
who wish to radicalise our knowledge of
how sexuality has developed as a crucial
cultural formation over the past hundred
years. To be sure, these critiques of
anachronistic misnaming make us
question the troubling embeddedness of
those identitarian assumptions that shape


contemporary ideas of sexuality as a knowable entity. Perhaps, back in the 1980s, I needed a
distinctly gay Wilde – one whose core identity could be found lurking in various textual depths
– to secure (perhaps by way of historical guarantee) the fiction of my own valued sexuality.

But the problem, I think, is really one of simply not knowing enough. The institutional
suppression of research in literary patterns of same-sex desire for years managed to perpetuate
the obscuration of what it was that gave rise to that suppression in the first place. Only recently
have we begun to understand the scope and shape of what Dowling calls the ‘counterdiscourse
of homosexuality’ that drew together a varied ensemble of dissident and not so dissident

If one follows the leads given by Sinfield, Halperin and Dowling, one comes up against a
wealth of thought-provoking scholarship that begins to suggest how and why the hetero/homo
binary – and its forever implied but thwarted bisexual intermediary – emerged in a climate
where there was an extraordinary crisis in trying to understand what sexuality actually might

he. The more we look at the range of representations of sex, gender and sexuality in the lateVictorian era, it is noticeable that the proliferation of materials about each of these formations
is remarkably incoherent. Effeminacy – to give just one example – could define a man’s
leisure-class bearing, his fondness for boys, or even his uxoriousness. But by the twentieth
century, there is a distinctive accent on forcing behaviours and identities together: so that the
effeminate is de facto queer.

Yet if ideas about sexual identity have been consolidated in the social imaginary, the truth
of sexuality has remained persistently resistant to understanding. In this respect, the well-worn
Foucauldian axiom about the immense verbosity of discourses about sex bearing an ironic
relation to the idea that we are all repressed could not be more to the point. Indeed, if one sets
out to find definitions of sexuality in reference books published in our own queer fin de siecle,
it is really quite surprising how incoherent the whole topic can still appear. As Jeffrey Weeks
remarks in his 1986 study Sexuality: ‘The more expert we become in talking about sexuality,
the greater the difficulties we seem to encounter in trying to understand it.’ Given the range of
theoretical positions that have accreted around sexuality (with and without its prefixes), it is
hard to know whether we are talking about somatic pleasure, object-choice or lifestyle.

Sexuality can usher us towards the analysis of social institutions that seek to regulate our
desires or to the mechanisms of identification and disavowal that shape and define our psychic
life. Since it seems to dwell both inside and outside – phantasmatically and in materiality sexuality may well appear to be implied in too many aspects of our lives to be identifiable in its
own right. The trouble is that its very centrality is always undone by its dispersal: it is
everywhere and nowhere at once.

If we have for the best part of a century suffered too much from the violence enacted by the
hetero/homo binary, then the time may well have come for us to take Halperin’s advice and
‘de-centre sexuality’. ‘Just because modern bourgeois Westerners are so obsessed with
sexuality, so convinced that it holds the key to the hermeneutics of the self,’ argues Halperin,
‘we ought not therefore conclude that everyone has always considered sexuality a basic and
irreducible element in it.’ Such a view, of course, may seem implausible at a time when, as
never before, we urgently need a sexual bill of rights. A bill of this kind would permit specific
practices – such as sexual assembly – to be defended. But if, in campaigning for sexual
freedoms, we could focus our energies more on issues than identities, declaring that what we
demand is respect for a rich variety of consensual sexual behaviours, rather than focusing on
our supposedly authentic selves, then the shibboleth that is sexuality might be cleared away.

The emergence of queer politics in 1990 assuredly marks one vital repudiation of the
inhibiting demand to he a specific sexuality in name as well as in deed. And it is a part of the
queer critical project to tell things slant, not straight. There is no better reason for us to return
to the diverse patterning of multi-erotic interests that characterized the period before 1895.

Perhaps things were altogether queerer in the years leading immediately up to the trials. But
would it, I wonder, be anachronistic to say so?


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