Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism

Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism

Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism

Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism


Beginning with Tennyson's In Memoriam and continuing by way of Hopkins and Swinburne to the novels of Oscar Wilde and Thomas Hardy, Richard Dellamora draws on journals, letters, censored texts, and pornography to examine the cultural construction of masculinity in Victorian literature.
Central to the struggle over the meaning of masculine desire was the institutional politics of Oxford University, where Benjamin Jowett, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater were principal players. As a young man in the 1860s, Pater, the art historian, essayist, and novelist, theorized a place for desire between men in cultural formation and critique. Later, in a climate of growing intolerance, he continued to affirm male-male desire but with increasing attention to the social functions of homophobia. Dellamora shows that discontent with conventional gender roles animated efforts to reimagine the possibilities of masculine existence.
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This book represents a first attempt at a synthetic study of desire between men as it figures in sexual-aesthetic discourses in England during the nineteenth century. In pursuing this topic, I supplement the synoptic accounts provided by gay social historians like Jeffrey Weeks with a study of micropractices that show how individual subjects respond at the very moments when codes of sexuality are being induced and/or imposed. In this respect, Michel Foucault's insights into the construction of homosexuality during the period provide my point of departure. In an influential formulation, Foucault has written:

We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized--Westphal's famous article of 1870 on "contrary sexual sensations" can stand as its date of birth--less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaph- roditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.1

As I attempt to show, however, the implication of questions about the mate as subject of desire--at times as both subject and object of desire--in androgynous language has a long, complex development in the rhetoric of nineteenth-century poetry. Moreover and as with other species, the evolution of "the homosexual" may be surmised in the traces that remain of various stages and/or kinds of development, in some of which a much more daring approach to "becoming-woman" is involved.

Particularly earlier in the century, writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley provide new norms of friendship/love in both male and male-female relationships. Later, Alfred Tennyson and Coventry Patmore in their poetry attempt to revise masculinity by reimagining marriage as a relation more nearly between equals. Hence efforts by male writers to refashion masculine gender norms do not indicate a tendency that, by the 1890s, had . . .

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