As a discipline based on categories of sexual identity, lesbian and gay studies has focused largely on sexuality and sexual activity and has tended to ignore the “outmoded” concept of romantic love. In this well-written study, Kevin Kopelson seeks to redress this imbalance by analyzing the four central features of nineteenth-century understandings of love that, he argues, have shaped, and been re-shaped by, twentieth-century homoeroticism: the idea of love as a complementary merger (the fusion into one of two individuals attracted to each other by their differences); Liebestod, the trope of love-death most commonly associated with Wagner but current throughout the nineteenth-century; Wertherism; and “crystallization,” Stendhal’s term for the attribution of perfection to the love object. Distributed over five chapters (two are devoted to the idea of complementary merger), these figures are used less to provide a comprehensive cultural history of modern homoerotics than to generate a series of readings of how individual authors deploy these concepts.
Chapter 1 illustrates Oscar Wilde’s use of the trope of Liebestod to produce a “reverse discourse,” a counter-hegemonic revision of fin-de-siécle conceptions of the male homosexual that also served to articulate the concerns of his gay contemporaries. By rewriting homosexuality as love, Wilde was able to desexualize it, making it more palatable to the dominant culture. At the same time, the transformation of the figure of heterosexual love-death into homoerotic murder-suicide allowed Wilde to articulate contemporary gay anxiety about the relatively recent abolition (in 1861) of the death penalty for sodomy. Chapter 2 addresses André Gide’s and Ronald Firbank’s attempts to negotiate a series of disparities in their presentations of pederastic love, including discursive contradictions between essentialist and constructionist concepts of subjectivity, conceptions of homosexuality and pederasty as narcissistic and of love as object-oriented, and the ideas of love as complementary merger and of pederasty as based on differences between the participants.
Chapter 3 continues the investigation of complementary merger, analyzing the tension in Virginia Woolf’s and Gertrude Stein’s “ontoeroticism,” [End Page 403] their sense of the unity of loving and being, a concept that is simultaneously intersubjective (as a merger of the subject and the other) and contrasubjective (as distancing). Because ontoeroticism is inherently dyadic, able to conceive only two parties, the advent of jealousy, the intrusion of a third party, provokes an epistemological crisis for both authors. Chapter 4 analyzes the rejection by Marguerite Yourcenar and Mary Renault of the idea of “crystallization,” the lover’s inevitable misperception of the love object. Using friendship and classical paradigms of heroic comradeship as models, both writers articulate an ideal of lovers as equals who know each other well, thus rejecting prevailing notions of (homo)sexual love as erotic domination. Chapter 5 critiques Roland Barthes’ attempt to liberate romantic love from the stereotypes of conventional ideology by articulating a “unisexual” commingling of love and sexuality. As Kopelson demonstrates, however, Barthes’ project is undermined by its reinscription of Wertherism, the stereotype of the lonely lover, and by its phallocentrism, its inability to imagine a unisexual sexuality that is not, finally, a gay male sexuality.
As the preceding summaries should suggest, this book is primarily valuable as a series of readings that often lend fresh insights into their subjects. Given the diversity of concerns that Kopelson addresses, however, he is not always able, in a study of this length, to address adequately all the issues raised in his discussion. Thus, for example, the “New Historicist” reading of Wilde might have profitably delved deeper into the historical record, presenting more evidence from contemporary sources for the perceptions of Wilde’s homosexual readers. A similar problem informs the book’s methodological eclecticism, its use of, among others, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Kristeva, and Chodorow in addition to such queer theorists as Sedgwick, Dollimore, and Halperin. While this methodological diversity is one of the book’s primary strengths, allowing a highly flexible approach to the materials, it also leads to a tendency to...