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  • Sexual Inversion
  • Joy Dixon (bio)
Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Sexual Inversion (1897)

Sexual Inversion was "the first English medical textbook on the topic of homosexuality" (Crozier 1). Symonds and Ellis had agreed to collaborate on a new study that would combine Symonds's historical analysis (especially of ancient Greece) with Ellis's account of current medical and scientific theory (Crozier 37). Symonds died in 1893 while the book was still in progress; it first appeared in German in 1896, published under both men's names even though Ellis had written most of the text. For the first English edition (discussed here), Ellis further revised the text, editing out some of Symonds's contributions to make it more "sexological" and less literary; in each successive edition, Ellis [End Page 72] rewrote the work further to emphasize its "scientific" character (Crozier 57-8, 85; see also Ellis 373). Virtually the whole of this first April 1897 edition was bought up and destroyed by Symonds's literary executor. A revised version of the text published later in 1897 by the (dubiously academic) university press at Watford was banned as obscene, leading Ellis to publish further works in the United States (Crozier 56, 60). The book's major contribution was to define homosexuality as a "'sport' or variation, one of those organic aberrations we see through living nature"; like "coloured-hearing," or synesthesia, this was a case where "there is not so much defect, as an abnormality producing new and involuntary combinations" (Ellis and Symonds 203-4). As such, Ellis and Symonds suggested, homosexuality should not be subject to legal persecution, and the book stood as an implicit challenge to the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, under which Oscar Wilde had been famously convicted shortly before the book's appearance (Crozier 11).

Sexual Inversion is generally (and rightly) characterized as a secular text. As Ivan Crozier puts it in his introduction to the most recent critical edition of the text, "Ellis was writing about sex because of his secular commitment to changing society" (34). At the same time, a number of scholars have noted the powerful religious elements in Ellis's work. According to Anne Summers, "it was neither medical science nor social anthropology" which drove Ellis's work but what she calls "a recondite and furtive spiritual radicalism" (Summers 180-1). In his recent study of Ellis, The Pursuit of Serenity, Chris Nottingham deliberately mixes the language of religion with the language of science to capture this curious slippage between science and the sacred: Nottingham refers to Ellis as a "prophet" (12), as part of a "secular clerisy" (97), a man for whom "science" meant not only empirical study but also "a transcendental insight into some unifying secret of the universe" (143-4; see also Paul 1). Less clear are the precise mechanisms that connect the spiritual and secular in Ellis's work in general and in his collaboration with Symonds in particular. I would argue that what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in Epistemology of the Closet, has argued of "homosexuality" is true as well of secularism: we need to resist the sense that it is a "coherent definitional field" and instead recognize it as "a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual definitional forces" (45). The shift from the confession to the case study and from the priest to the sexologist was—like the shift from a preoccupation with the "sodomite" to concern with the "homosexual" or "invert"—as David Halperin puts it in his reconsideration of Michel Foucault, "the result of long historical processes of accumulation, accretion, and overlay," in which the traces of earlier frameworks persist and destabilize their supposed successors (11, 106).

Ellis and Symonds rejected both orthodox Christianity and purely materialist science in favour of a kind of natural religion. Ellis had "slid almost imperceptibly off the foundation of Christian belief " (Ellis 114) as a teenager but found the scientific conception of an evolutionary world mechanical and uninspiring. When he was a young man teaching in Australia, his reading of James Hinton's [End Page 73] work enabled what he later described as his "conversion," in which he came to believe that "religion is a natural...


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