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History of the Dandy, Part I.

Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol

by Elisa Glick

SUNY Press. 220 pages, $24.95

AT THE END of this tantalizing, informative, erudite and resourceful book, English and Women & Gender Studies academic Elisa Glick quotes one of her illustrious predecessors. Rhonda Garelick, on the figure of the dandy: "Critics writing about dandies or their texts fall easily into dandyist style, and succumb to its charms."

Quite. The importation of a kind of "late" or difficult style from post-structuralism--more informed by Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes than the equally indirect and elusive prose of Henry James--has been the undoing of many a monograph within queer literary studies. Glick, however, earns the right to allude to the danger of "swallowing" dandyism, on account of the striking lucidity and directness of her own approach. Beyond this, however, lies a second reason to recommend Materializing Queer Desire. Unlike many books-from-theses, this volume has something new and significant to say.

At first that wasn't self-evident. Glick's focus takes in some rather heavily mined seams of gay and lesbian dandyism: from Oscar Wilde through Renee Vivian and Natalie Barney to Radclyffe Hall, Wallace Thurman, William Burroughs, and Andy Warhol. Also, at first I wasn't clear whether her approach would loiter on the artist-as-dandy or the personality pose--surely done to death by now.

But her interests are much more substantial and intriguing than that. Glick sets out to reconsider both the figure of the dandy and dandyish writings in light of the last century's developments in capitalism--in the promulgation of desires of all kinds, but including the sexual, through the marketplace, and in the consequent identification of even the sexual minority member as consumer. This robs the dandy of what we have commonly experienced as a sort of nostalgic idealization of the pose, and reminds us of the vital, reactionary element in it. Long enshrined as what Glick terms a "hero of modern life," the dandy across history has not only acted in defiance of social mores, he or she has also challenged traditional distinctions between private and public selves. Many of Glick's dandies paraded character traits and stylistic affectations relating to a sexual nature that others concealed or suppressed. In hindsight, the dandy thus becomes a complex, bifurcated figure, both "privileged emblem of the modem and ... a dissident in revolt against modern society."

There remains, superficially, a martyr-like connotation to many dandyish displays: Wilde in the slammer, accused of gross indecency; Radclyffe Hall vigorously defending her wretched novel; Wallace Thurman toying with primitivist notions of the African-American male. Just as often, the dandy needs to be seen as an opportunist, not an idealist. What at first feels martyr-like comes to resemble instead the consequence of a tragic flaw: not defiance, at least not initially, but the result of an inability to estimate societal and establishment opprobrium. The gay dandy aims to shock, giving off traditionally shameful behaviors and poses in a scandalous manner. But, in a sense, if the aim is not to be self-defeating, assimilation is the immediate and paradoxical aim. The dandy is marking a sort of personal conduct that falls beyond existing mores rather than a bid to transgress and be found culpable of transgression. The idea is to mark out a new definition of permissible behavior, a sort of decadent mark in the sand.

In literature, it is notable that representatives of "extreme" dandyist aestheticism invariably do not prove sacrificial victims. In Wilde, Henry Wootton catalyzes the falls of Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray, remaining miraculously untouched. Evelyn Waugh, perhaps heeding this example, documents the demise of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, not that of his grotesque, Mephistophelian dandyish outrider, Anthony Blanche. The example of Waugh feels most compelling since he patently resisted the lure of dandyism himself, even as he scrupled, with a Catholic conscience, to delineate it accurately.

Glick does something that's all too rare in GLBT studies: she carefully and convincingly interrelates gay male and lesbian examples. For too long, cultural and literary critics have indulged in hand-wringing prefaces, lamenting their inability to consider gay and lesbian cultural change together. Invariably, the "separate traditions" of female and male creativity are cited--a half-truth, certainly, but a misleading and inhibiting argument that's fundamentally anachronistic. We will not fully understand inter-war GLBT prose and fiction--Hall's The Well of Loneliness, Djuna Barnes's trailblazing Nightwood, Colette's The Pure and the Impure, Marcel Proust--without coming to terms with the primal influence of "third sex" theories of sexuality, as promoted by Magnus Hirschfeld, Havelock Ellis, and others, which held that lesbians were men's souls trapped within female form, gay men the converse. Gay self-understanding emerged from, and remained contingent upon, fixed and universally accepted notions of gender-appropriate behavior. In a certain sense, a figure like Radclyffe Hall's Stephen Gordon embraces societal norms while simultaneously violating them. She respects the protocols by which one presented oneself in society; it's just that she adopts protocols of the opposite sex.

If there's anything to critique, it is that the importance of class and national character does not fully come across. After Hall, the discussion shifts to American terrain. The same thing happened in Julie Abraham's Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities (which I reviewed in these pages, May-June 2009). There is a risk of implying that national cultures have not strongly shaped the development of the 20th-century dandy, and, worse, that postwar GLBT culture magically migrated from the Old World to the New. Likewise, given more space, Glick could have considered the gradual morphing of the figure of the dandy away from his/her upper- and upper-middle-class origins. Was Joe Orton, for example, or any of his charming, raffish young male leads, a dandy, or (merely?) a narcissist? How can we tell the difference? Could Tennessee Williams' Blanche Dubois have inherited elements of female dandyish excess?

A final, surprising and welcome consequence of Glick's meticulously materialist study is the long-needed recuperation of gay essentialism: "Despite social constructionists' suggestions to the contrary, it is possible to theorize essentialism in radically historical and materialist terms." Sexual essence may be a fiction, but then so is a socially constructed desiring self. The GLBT dandy oscillates between the private (hidden) and public (displayed) realms of sexuality, since his or her erotic nature lies in neither place, but in the act of oscillation itself. Hence, the acquisition mania of many a dandy. Dorian Gray, for example, resembles Walter Benjamin's collector in Illuminations (1955): perversely, objects do not "come alive in him, it is he who lives in them." A link might be made to 1980's and 90's fictions detailing the endless erotic conquests of gay and lesbian Lotharios (John Rechy, Renaud Camus, Jane DeLynn) and even straight ones too (Catherine Millet). The contingent, unfinished character of the persistent seducer or predator--the dependency upon what the latest conquest reflects back or "means"--is what the reader most strongly inherits. The libertarian sexual rake--as in de Sade--becomes enslaved by his obsessive pursuit of emancipation.

Glick's excellent book necessarily entailed selectiveness, and I wasn't fully convinced that the best literature was chosen. And there was one point where I felt her thesis was in danger of overreaching. The familiar claim that Warhol "reshaped sexuality into a cultural effect of commodity aesthetics" always makes me wonder whether--as the Russian formalists used to argue of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin--this development wouldn't have happened anyway. It may show intelligence that Warhol rode the wave; I'm not sure this is the same thing as genius. Also, the definition of Warhol-style camp as a "mode of passionate extravagance" feels theoretically underpowered, given the substantial theorization of "camp" effects that we have on hand today.

These are small quibbles. Materializing Queer Desire deserves to be read widely and seriously. Its ideas will prove illuminating tools for future critical inquiries in the many corners of GLBT cultural scholarship, and Glick is to be congratulated for such an important first book.

Richard Canning's most recent title is E. M. Forster: Brief Lives, sister volume to his biography of Oscar Wilde (both Hesperus Press).
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Title Annotation:Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol
Author:Canning, Richard
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
Words:1339
Previous Article:No Straight Line from A to B.
Next Article:Sex and the Shattering Self.
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