Mapping Male Sexuality: Nineteenth-Century England

By Jay Losey; William D. Brewer | Go to book overview

The Comic Promiscuity of
W. S. Gilbert’s Dandy-Aesthete

DENNIS DENISOFF

MANY THEORISTS SEE THE NINETEENTH CENTURY AS ONE OF THE most influential periods in Western history for the formation of identities defined by unconventional sexualities. The view is based in large part on Michel Foucaulťs well-known claim—articulated in Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality—that identities are constructed through macro-political systems that also influence the ways in which people perceive and communicate with each other in private or domestic spaces. Although various institutions did begin attempting to categorize and contain sexual deviancy at this time, simplified adaptations of Foucaulťs argument risk attributing excessive control to medical, juridical, religious, and other institutional discourses, thereby leaving no room for addressing the positive and affirming articulations of those identities that the institutions debase.1 Sexual identities form neither entirely through established institutions nor solely through the construction of counter-discourses by individuals attempting to communicate their oppressed desires and actions to select others. Rather, the formation and ongoing re-formation of sexual identities are the unpredictable result of strategic and random acts that are not always predefined by institutional taxonomies.

The nineteenth-century Aesthetic Movement makes apparent some of the subtleties, ambiguities, and misreadings that were an important part of the formation of identities based on unconventional sexualities.2 While Walter Pater’s aestheticist description of sympathy and his homoerotic idealization of sensuous pleasure advocated a supportive notion of sexual diversity, literary reviewers’ almost entirely negative affirmation of this diversity helped to establish the discourse in mainstream society, thereby informing a broader range of people who experienced unconventional desires that they were not alone.3 Parodists and satirists were especially important in making aestheticism one of the most popular movements

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