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  • "The Author of 'Beltraffio'":The Exquisite Boy and Henry James's Equivocal Aestheticism
  • Kevin Ohi

First published in 1884, Henry James's "The Author of 'Beltraffio'" comes early in a series of tales of literary discipleship that he wrote in the 1880s and 1890s. Depicting pedagogical relations in markedly erotic terms, they detail intimate claustrations of master and disciple, elaborately choreographed seductions of examination and reluctant exhibition, and literary relations that inspire panting, breathing, groaning, caressing, throbbing, and pressing, that occasion passionate beatings of hearts and distracted flutterings of attention.1 Many of these stories share a common structure, which deflects the (more or less) implicit erotics of the master-disciple relation through a shared desire for a young woman. This triangular structure of bonding, exchange, and rivalry conforms, of course, to the "homosocial desire" Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explores in Between Men; to my mind, these stories avoid the trajectory from male homosociality to "homosexual panic" by eschewing the knowingness that, for Sedgwick, underlies the panic—a knowingness affianced to a particular style of unknowing, the foreclosure less of homosexuality than of the possibility that desire might be something other than known.2 Desire is intimately bound up with the conundrums of interpretation in these stories that have made them, for critics, exemplary instances of James's elusive reflection on his own art. Thus, in the later stories, the triangular relation culminates in scenarios of betrayal exquisitely wrought to baffle the disciple's desire to console himself with knowledge; corroding even the possibility of knowing or confirming the betrayal one suspects one has suffered, of understanding one's experience, in other words, through a verifiable act of reading, the equivocal lessons of the masters must therefore extend, as well, to the readers of the tales. The various difficulties presented by these stories—their uneven satirical effects, for instance, their variations in tone, voice, and focalization, their often unverifiable intimations that the narrators are obscurely embroiled in the stories they tell, even, in much more elementary terms, their troubling of such a simple matter as the deciphering of [End Page 747] their plots—all these suggest ways that the reader is made to take the role of betrayed disciple. If, therefore, critics from Richard Ellmann to Jonathan Freedman have turned to "The Author of 'Beltraffio'" for an early statement of James's take on British aestheticism, such an effort, I would argue, can scarcely avoid entanglement in the snares of this transferential structure. Against Freedman's powerful reading of James's use of aestheticism—the effort he sees to keep the "destabilizing implications" of British aestheticism "under control"—I would argue that James's story (and, perhaps, James's oeuvre more generally) rather forces us to confront these "destabilizing implications."3 The story's aestheticism, I'll suggest, is to be found in its thwarting of our effort to decode in it a definitive statement about aestheticism; this disorientingly insinuating structure, moreover, accounts for the story's queer eroticism. In other words, this story, like many of these tales of the artistic life, presents an eroticism that lies not so much in the explicit throbbing, panting, and groaning of passionate discipleship as in the redoublement that leaves the reader in the disciple's place. Invoking that self-reflexive turn is worth the risk it runs of New Critical cliché because it helps bring into view the destabilizing effects of the story's aestheticism—and the queerness of that aestheticism.4

Such transferential terms are, moreover, exactly those with which the story frames the seductions of aestheticism; the story turns on the power of aestheticist writing to influence and seduce, and, in particular, to influence or seduce a child. The narrative of a devoted disciple's visit to the home of his aestheticist idol Mark Ambient had as its "germ," James tells us in the Notebooks, Edmund Gosse's report that the wife of John Addington Symonds "had no sort of sympathy with what he wrote; disapproving of its tone, thinking his books immoral, hyper-aesthetic, etc; 'I have never read any of John's works. I think them most undesirable,'" James has her say.5 Mrs. Ambient's distaste for her...