Richard Kaye responds to David Agruss

In 1905, Hugo von Hoffmannstahl wrote of Wilde: “People say, ‘He was an aesthete, and suddenly unfortunate entanglements overwhelmed him, a snare of unfortunate entanglements’… An aesthete! This signifies nothing.” For Hoffmannstahl, an aesthete is “a man who lived by enjoyment and re-creation of beauty” and who “by nature is steeped in propriety” Hoffmannstahl’s example of a pure aesthete was Pater, while Wilde was a figure of “impropriety, tragic impropriety.” [1]

I recalled these words after I read David Agruss’s thoughtful tracking of his resistance to—but ultimate partial submission to––the counter-post-structuralism of Before Queer Theory. I think Agruss is right in discerning a “queer optimism” at the heart of Friedman’s book. Yet Agruss’s last sentence—in which he sees an “ethics of risk” in Friedman’s “different genealogy of poststructuralism”—would seem to diminish one of Before Queer Theory’s best features—namely, its polemical revisionism. Nor do I see how an “ethics of risk” is an issue here. For me, Hoffmannstahl’s distinction explains the degree to which nineteenth-century British aestheticism sustained a certain “propriety” and indeed a success—hence its arguably global influence in the realms of décor, art, architecture, and design—until it shaded, with Wilde, into Decadence. Following Hoffmannstahl, I would make a distinction between the late-Victorian writers who defensively cultivated their aesthetic gardens and those engagé erotic dissidents such as Wilde who were forced to serve as political actors and who riskily embraced socialist causes, prison reform, and proto-feminist and utopian schemes.

Agruss’s other point in that last sentence—that there is a “queer utopianism” informing Friedman’s book—prompts me to think that I was misguided in seeing Before Queer Theory as anti-utopian. On reflection, I think Friedman is just ambivalent on the value of utopias. For, on the one hand, he aligns his work with Munoz’s Cruising Utopia, Michael Snediker’s Queer Optimism, and Brian Glavey’s Wallflower Avant Garde because of their shared critique of the “No Future” polemics. As I noted in my earlier response, there may even be a utopian undercurrent in all of those sexually non-conforming aesthetes finding solace in those defensive aesthetic practices. Yet there is that paragraph on Dorian Gray I cited, which, as it happens, is the very last paragraph of Before Queer Theory—an optimistic, even visionary conclusion that disallows the power of a queer utopianism that Before Queer Theory only timorously acknowledges.

[1] Hoffmannstahl, Hugo von. “Sebastian Melmoth.” Selected Prose. Trans. Mary Hottinger, Tanya Stern, and James Stern. (New York: Penguin, 1952), 303.

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