Negative Eroticism: Lyric Performativity and the Sexual Subject in Oscar Wilde's "The Portrait of Mr. W. H."


This essay explores the radical subjectivism of Oscar Wilde's novella "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." (1889/1921), which celebrates the creative potential of nonessentialist of identity and yet cautions against jettisoning humanist notions of selfhood entirely. I contend that Wilde turned to G. W. F. Hegel's performative theory of lyric negativity to advance his homoerotic reading of William Shakespeare's sonnets. This reading expresses the insight Wilde gains from Hegel's theory: namely, that language's limited ability to capture the truth of erotic desire need not undermine the fundamental perdurability of individual subjectivity. In contrast to much recent work in queer theory, Wilde's novella demonstrates the ability of homoerotic desire to ground, rather than undermine, a notion of reflective freedom.