Reflection by Jill Ehnenn
Art does queer things. Especially for the nineteenth-century consumer of art who sensed that something about their erotic orientation was outside of the norm, art provided a way to experience queer desire and “transform pain and destruction into the creative energy needed to re-form the self and reimagine the world” (Friedman, 8). This is the premise of Dustin Friedman’s Before Queer Theory: Victorian Aestheticism and the Self, which explores the work of Hegelian negativity and the aesthetics of subjective autonomy among homoerotically-inclined aesthetes, beginning with Walter Pater.
Friedman’s study convincingly and usefully identifies, in Pater, Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee, and Michael Field, a process of queering art and creating a queer-affirming self that charts an intellectual and phenomenological path toward what we today call queer theory. I particularly appreciate Friedman’s refreshing departure from the “anti-social” and “no future” trend in recent queer theory, which to be frank, always seemed to be most compelling as a thought experiment or intellectual pose rather than as a strategic mode of being in the real world. Like Friedman and the aesthetes he discusses, my own queer thinking has always been more closely aligned with José Esteban Muñoz’s queer utopianism.
That said, one of the things I admire about Before Queer Theory, is that it employs paranoid and reparative reading with a light hand. Friedman demonstrates that art enabled Pater et. al. to do something a bit like queer theory—to become somewhat like queer subjects. Before Queer Theory does not uncover gays and lesbians in the past; but neither does it stake a claim for a late-Victorian version of no future or queer failure. In resisting universalism Friedman avoids creating an oversimplified teleological argument for queer theory. He shows that Pater, Wilde, Lee, and Field are not mirrors of ourselves, but are just recognizable enough to help us circumvent some of the theoretical prisons that tend to get us stuck in binaries of our own making.
For instance, one place where Friedman and I diverge is in our interpretation of Michael Field’s “disinterested gaze” in Sight and Song, which is the subject of Friedman’s last chapter, “Queering Indifference in Michael Field’s Ekphrastic Poetry.” Like Ana Parejo Vadillo, Friedman takes quite seriously the co-authors’ claim that they are aiming for objectivity –“to eliminate our idiosyncrasies” as they gaze at the work of art (Field, vi). In contrast, and in keeping with Julia Saville’s reading of Michael Field in general, I take the assertions of objectivity in Sight and Song’s preface to be highly strategic—as one of many performative moments that, as Julia Saville argues, Michael Field inhabited in order to distance themselves from the sentimentality of the Victorian poetesses with whom they strongly did not want to be identified. In my reading, we should interpret Sight and Song’s preface in context of Michael Field’s other blatantly defiant statements like “this poem pleads guilty to anachronism” in their preface to Callirhoë. Thus while Friedman’s chapter on Michael Field seems to privilege the powerful hold of objectivity in the Field’s process of ekphrastic creation, I find the second, highly subjective half of their process more compelling:
…the inevitable force of individuality must still have play and a temperament mould the
purified impression : —
‘When your eyes have done their part,
Thought must length it in the heart.’ (Field, Sight and Song vi)
In other words, the repetition of “must” is important; in my reading of Michael Field, their re-vision of the master works always already takes as a point of departure that indifference is impossible; there is no innocent eye.
The extent to which one takes seriously Michael Field’s claims to objectivity will likely remain a point of debate in Michael Field studies, but curiously, wherever one resides in the objective/subjective debate, the end game here is the same: as Friedman observes, in a moment of Hegelian negativity, we see in Michael Field a radical break from a selfhood aligned with heteronorms, allowing a radically queer subjectivity to emerge, one imbued with a certain degree of self-determination. The Hegelian model which seems to operate so powerfully for the aesthetes in Before Queer Theory may not cleanly translate to our queer modus operandi today, nor does it have to in order to be useful. In this way Friedman’s work reminds me that, whether historicist or presentist, identitarian or anti-identitarian, or ways of conceptualizing erotic desires not yet articulated or understood, we should approach our own queer art of theorizing, with its many points of departure, with curiosity, generosity, and an openness to reimagining the world.
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