Transvaluing immaturity: Hellenism, primitivism, and a reverse discourse of male homosexuality in late-Victorian and Edwardian narrative
da Silva, Stephen
Doctor of Philosophy thesis
Late-Victorian and Edwardian British ideology represented male homosexuals as psychically and somatically arrested. In response, many middle-class, male homosexual writers drew on versions of Hellenic pederasty and primitivism to distinguish between youthful strains and more degenerate forms of homosexuality, or to celebrate the youthful homosexual and his potential to educate and regenerate a corrupted heterosexual culture. Drawing on Michel Foucault's insight that power does not simply repress deviance but also has the potential to produce oppositional "reverse discourses," I examine how the generational fictions of these writers employed and partially transvalued the very terms that were used to denigrate them in order to legitimate and affirm male same-sex desire or some strains of male same-sex desire. In the first section of the dissertation, entitled "Youthful and Degenerate Homosexualities," I examine how Oscar Wilde and E. F. Benson distinguish between corrupted and youthful, privileged forms of same-sex desire that they align with Hellenic values, as mediated through contemporary national and imperial concerns. In the second section, entitled "The Youthful Homosexual versus Aged/Corrupted Heterosexual Culture," I examine how Edward Carpenter and E. M. Forster use the youthful homosexual to critique their culture's obsession with developmental narratives and to construct a dialectical model of history in which the homosexual plays the crucial role of recovering a lost, organic wholeness associated with working-class and primitive, non-Western cultures. The project draws gay literary theory into conversation with postcolonial studies. The writers I examine link their critique of heterosexist developmental ideology to their indictment of colonial Britain's contempt for "primitive" peoples and its obsession with progress. They also draw on cross-cultural data to denaturalize Western assumptions about same-sex desire. However, they ignore their implication in the imperial privilege they critique. I use this vexed conjunction between anti-homophobic and anti-colonial concerns to explore the possibilities and limits of an alliance between contemporary postcolonial theory and a hitherto Western, metropolitan-centered, gay literary theory.