restricted access The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire, and: Effeminate England: Homoerotic Writing After 1885 (review)
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Reviewed by
Christopher Lane. The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. xii + 326 pp.
Joseph Bristow. Effeminate England: Homoerotic Writing After 1885. New York: Columbia UP, 1995. x + 193 pp.

Working from psychoanalytic and poststructuralist critical foundations, Christopher Lane presents us with an intellectually dense and meticulously thought out consideration of male homosexual desire and its allegorical positionings in the narratives of the British Colonial Empire. Moving beyond the premise that allegory is a rhetorical structure that “organizes otherwise disparate groups and individuals into effective [and willing] political units,” Lane asserts in his Introduction that male homosexual desire has acted as a “counterforce that shatters national allegory by introducing unassimilable elements” into the narratives of empire. In this way, The Ruling Passion shifts the focus of colonial gay and lesbian studies away from the “obvious proposition” that homosexuals were an important part of the British Empire towards the idea that homosexual desire and its textual manifestations disrupted the allegories of empire by introducing “sexual ambivalence, political contention, self-antagonism, and national and racial disputes” into the imperial project.

While demonstrating how homosexual desire acts as a disrupting force against the allegories of empire, The Ruling Passion does not present us with a simplistic, romantic picture of homosexual-author as [End Page 495] subversive—which brings us to the “paradox” of Lane’s title—rather, Lane leads us chapter by chapter through the paradoxical situation in which the authors of colonial texts, in dealing with male homosexual desire as well as homosocial contexts, are caught between sanitizing and desexualizing the homoerotic (often compensated for by overvalorized aesthetics) versus abandoning their preconceived notions of “civilization” for their “savage” desires. This dilemma leads authors, as Lane puts it, to oscillate between the two poles of homoerotic desire and the dominant narratives of empire as embodied in allegories of national allegiance, a struggle that eventually reveals that both psychic and colonial mastery are untenable.

In the first chapter, The Ruling Passion argues that this oscillation between mastery of empire and desire surfaces in Rudyard Kipling’s works as racial tension, sexual anxieties, and colonial doubt. Responding to this lack of stability in and assurance from the empire, Kipling, Lane contends, strives to produce texts at the end of his life that “prioritize the voice of law over the vicissitudes of desire.” In addressing the “pioneer” texts of A. E. W. Mason and H. Rider Haggard in chapter 2, Lane finds that the pioneer’s journey reflects and is driven by a failure to master a psychic journey, which Westerners have, as Achebe noted several years ago, attempted to “work out” on the Other.

In the next few chapters, Lane wanders somewhat from his colonial focus as he moves to establish a more theoretical base from which he can attack the fantasies of empire that manifest themselves in notions of stable representation and identity. Looking at several works by Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and Max Beerbohm in chapter 3, the author questions the ability of narrative to convey truth and proposes that the use of painting in these texts points out the conflict over what narratives can and can’t represent, particularly in regard to homosexuality. Chapter 4 proposes that Joseph Conrad’s Victory denatures heterosexual romance and also shows us that a full understanding of desire is impossible. Finding W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage preoccupied with masculine desire and identification, Lane submits that object choice is not the defining criteria for identifying someone as heterosexual or homosexual and that Philip Carey’s—as well as Maugham’s—crisis of desire throws both masculine identification and sexual desire awry. [End Page 496]

In chapter 6 Lane next examines interracial homosexual desire in several of E. M. Forster’s works and observes that difference is a trap from which Forster’s characters cannot escape; thus, Forster’s famous injunction, “only connect,” is seen as underscoring an intractable rupture between the conscious knowledge of difference and an unconscious antagonism found in interracial homosexual lovers. Exploring some of Ronald Firbank’s fantasy writing in chapter 7, Lane forwards the novel idea that “Firbank’s emphasis...