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  • A Thousand Words: Portraiture, Style, and Queer Modernism
  • Norman W. Jones
Jaime Hovey. A Thousand Words: Portraiture, Style, and Queer Modernism. Columbus: The Ohio State UP, 2006. x + 136 pp.

Jaime Hovey argues that modernist literary portraits—literary representations of pictorial portraits as in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, and literary depictions of a character's individuality as in Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—explicitly foreground the rhetorical relationship between such portraits, their creators, and their audiences; in doing so, they invite a subversive sense of group intimacy. Well known for their fascination for non-normative sexual behaviors, modernist literary portraits tend to represent lesbians and homosexual men not in terms of the pathological, isolated individual, Hovey contends, or as constituting a fixed, essential [End Page 218] kind of individuality; on the contrary, they represent homosexuality as a dynamic, community-created subversion of socially normative sex and gender roles. Hovey explores such representations as deriving from the long history of dandyism—particularly its expressed awareness of presenting itself to an audience and the archly exaggerated performance of personal style with which it responds to that awareness. A Thousand Words provocatively engages critical interest in queer studies, visual culture, and psychoanalysis as they relate to modernist literature.

T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" famously recommends that artists strive for impersonality in their work, but Hovey argues that this dictum describes only part of modernist tensions surrounding personality. In her introduction, she holds that

modern writing is obsessed with personality as well as impersonality, that "personality" and the personal often served as a euphemism for the sexual particularity of homoerotic desire, and that the (mostly) literary portrait—one of the more prominent forms of experimentalism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writing—functioned as a dynamic aesthetic mechanism that formulated the homoerotic, the lesbian, and the perversely gendered as attributes of particular individual personalities and of communal, cultural group identities.


Hovey contends that the individuality in such portraits typically represents not the deep truth of a given individual but an artful manipulation of personal style—an arch exaggeration of mannerisms commonly taken to signify individuality. Hovey's argument relies heavily on certain psychoanalytic concepts of Jacques Lacan's (and Sigmund Freud's), which she invokes as having developed from the same "modernist zeitgeist" as the literature she analyzes. In this context, Hovey explains how foregrounding personality as style in literary portraiture enacts the repression or evasion of "sexual difference and heterosexuality" (7). The specifically literary aspect of such enactments derives primarily from the ways in which literature can self-reflectively represent its own functions as rhetoric, foregrounding the relationship between performer, performance, and audience, as in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past: "reading framed here as both performance and dynamic spectatorship gestures toward an ethics of seeing, one that does not merely witness but identifies compassionately with being seen as well as seeing, with the bravado of impersonation and self-fashioned personality as well as the abjection of resemblance" (10). Modernist literary portraiture focuses less on the isolated individual than on the relational community implicit in the act of portrait-making itself. [End Page 219]

Chapter one develops this larger theme of how modernist representations of homosexuality work against the normative impulse to pathologize non-normative sexuality by confining such sexuality to the isolated individual's alienating affliction. Hovey maintains that modernist literary portraiture "refuses the stigma of particularity by celebrating the group-constituting power of extraordinary individual 'personality.'" She offers compelling examples in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," setting these texts in conversation with Lacan's concept of the Gaze, and exploring how they respond in similar ways to their era's tensions surrounding subjectivity in general and sexual subjectivity in particular. Specifically, she explores how in modernist literary portraiture the "tension between the fear of sexual surveillance, on the one hand, and the flamboyant solicitation of the look, on the other" enacts the kind of socially created self-consciousness posited by Lacan's notion of the Gaze (21). Dorian Gray's tragedy is that he "lets...


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pp. 218-221
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