After reading Oscar Wilde, approaching a text like Havelock Ellis’ requires a change of mindset. Its philosophy of writing opposes almost directly the Aestheticism of Wilde: it does not generate text as art for art’s sake but instead channels writing towards a social purpose. Finding the queerness within both of these texts—taking into consideration their very different purposes, their distinct styles, and their authors’ (purported) divergent sexual behaviors—I hope to consider how literary queerness can differ and for what reasons we recognize different texts as queer in different ways.
In our discussion of Dorian Gray I always found myself linking Dorian and Henry’s constant reclining position with their queerness, my impression being that at the fin-de-siècle, this kind of queer body lies down on a divan with perfumed cushions instead of sitting upright at a desk with pen and paper. Decadence seems to encapsulate this reclining position, whereas the upright, hardworking position tends toward a text like Ellis’: a work written in technical language and with a quite specific purpose in mind. Both works contain their fair share of queerness (especially Ellis’ letters, breaks from his dryer, more utilitarian prose) but are most definitely queer in different ways and for different reasons.
These generalizations of course oversimplifies much about the texts we’ve read these last three weeks, but comparing Ellis and Wilde will help to complicate (and collapse) them especially well. For now, I will categorize the production of queer texts into two camps: decadent (idleness, art for art’s sake, laying down, Wilde) and productive (utility, writing for a moral purpose, sitting up, Ellis) existing in opposition.
Barthes be damned, authorship makes up a large part of the location of queerness within these texts. Wilde is considered a queer person, whereas Ellis is not: the decadent perspective here is written by an insider (a “queer” person) whereas the productive one is written by an outsider (a “straight” person). Ellis’ text still contains an insider perspective, however, in its letters from sexual inverts. The framing, then, of the insider perspective is crucial. In a decadent novel, that queer perspective is, as we discussed, both everywhere and nowhere. In a productive text, it is more openly identified as queer, yet that identification serves to twist it into evidence for the outsider’s analysis instead of allowing it to speak for itself. The closeted queer text underneath Wilde’s decadence is somehow more dangerous for its author, even though its references to queerness are better hidden. The productive text, wielding the power of definition to separate its author from his subject, has lower stakes for the author because of its openness and the appearance of objectivity.
Both texts permit varied readings, queer and not. Wilde’s novel could be read as homoerotic (or not) and as approving of queerness (or not) because of its ambiguities. Similarly, Ellis’ text can be read as either condemning or liberating homosexuals and is written using the jargon of medicine, psychology, and sociology. Thus the first, the decadent, relies on masks and codes to allow for multiple, even contradictory, interpretations of its own stance on queerness. Much is left up to a reader in determining whether the novel contains homoeroticism and whether it approves. The second, the productive, utilizes technical and explicit language, but still manages to allow for similarly varied interpretations concerning to what extent the author is accepting or intolerant of homosexual behavior.
Wilde’s preface to Dorian Gray assigns his text a grand artistic purpose that underscore’s that decadent art, even while opposing productivity and utility, still finds its motivation in its creators’ intentions and goals. The preface’s ornate (and self-praising) style seems in direct opposition to Ellis’ text, which appears no-nonsense in comparison. That a text like Ellis’, despite its own lofty projects of solving the “social problem” of homosexuality and its inclusion of quite dramatic first-person accounts, appears more realistic, more grounded, and simpler than Wilde’s is quite notable. Both texts’ meanings face similar contestation, contain similar complications, and originate from goals of similar magnitude. Yet Dorian Gray’s queerness and Ellis text’s queerness are unmistakably different, owing to their different locations on a spectrum of decadence and productivity.