A Late Victorian Love Affair

The nineteenth century was a great period for both the closeting and the uncloseting of sexual themes. We like to suppose that the reaction against Victorianism was a phenomenon of this century, not of that one. But it was of course well under way before Victoria died. In those days writers could make their slight breakthroughs with considerable subtlety. Today writers have to content themselves with bare forked creatures for characters, but then a penumbra surrounded erotic events, and writers of fiction could manipulate that penumbra like a figleaf.

What needed to be disclosed in literature about sexual appetites and maneuvers had in fact been presented in the writings of the Marquis de Sade at the end of the eighteenth century. But these were not widely circulated, and they confused the case for candor and for what Sade called nature by insisting on the need for cruelty. Swinburne and Wilde were among those who had read Sade, and recognized his value as an extreme pole of human expression. When in De Profundis Wilde wished to characterize his future reputation, he said that posterity would place him somewhere between the Marquis de Sade and the celebrated killer of boys Gilles de Retz. This grim prediction was composed out of self-pity, since a sadist was what Wilde was not. He really wrote De Profundis with the object of placing himself somewhere between Sacher-Masoch and Jesus Christ.

Wilde’s temperament was not in fact flagrant, even if his behavior may have been. His personal pageantry was different from that of the great confessional writers, Rousseau or Henry Miller for example; he ranked himself rather with Gautier and Swinburne. These writers and others like them taunted the world by suggesting that the sunset hues of decadence were more noble than the black and white of moral uplift. They hinted also at the possibility that the future lay in their hands rather than in the hands of conventional people. Their method was to offer tantalizing bits. Gautier took the whole of his novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, to undress his hero and make it clear that he was she. (Sade practiced no such patience.) Halfway houses suited Swinburne as well. The defense used by writers of this persuasion, especially from Gautier on, was that they were espousing the freedom of art to deal with whatever it chose. Wilde had in mind not only Gautier and Swinburne, but also Balzac, who took up homosexuality in La Fille aux yeux d’or, and in Illusions perdues, without bothering to give it a name. That is, Vautrin, the archcriminal, seduces the ingenuous Lucien de Rubempré as they sit in a coach bound for Paris, although nothing is said beyond the repeated offer of a cigar and Lucien’s eventual acceptance of it.

Lucien de Rubempré became in fact the nineteenth-century type of the homosexual beloved, as Antinoös, Hadrian’s lover, was for classical times. Such figures function in the à rebours tradition as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra do …

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Letters

Vautrin’s Cigar October 27, 1977