- Failure & Queer Masculinity From Wilde to Wilfred Owen
IN HIS CONTRIBUTION to Palgrave's series, Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture, James Campbell pursues with considerable success an ambitious speculative argument concerning how Oscar Wilde conceived of his own sexuality (by contrast with the currently prevalent object-oriented thinking about homosexuality) and how his self-conception influenced Wilfred Owen. His highly suggestive, well-written book deserves the attention of scholars writing on Wilde, on queer theory, on the poetry of World War I, and on military masculinity. Objecting effectively to characterizations of Wilde as a homosexual in the way the term is often used today, Campbell chooses the word "queer" as an alternative to designate Wilde's self-understanding that, he argues, is bound up with the notion of intergenerational male procreation evoked in Wilde's 1899 "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." as he interprets it. He makes his multi-faceted argument from a historicist perspective, with attention to recent queer theory and through close readings of texts in all the genres.
The study includes an introduction, six chapters, and a brief afterword. The first chapter develops the book's central concept, male procreation. Through a reading attuned to the complicated play of provisos within "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," the chapter brings out the story's implications for cultural reproduction through erotic engagement between two males in which effeminacy is not denigrated. Chapter two focuses on the 1890 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray read as a sequel to the earlier story that extends and reconsiders male procreation by presenting various impasses that arise in the relations of the three central male characters. Campbell argues that the longer narrative destabilizes the ideal of male procreation, which goes awry within the context of culturally entrenched attitudes. Drawing on John Addington [End Page 392] Symonds's concept of personality as a union of spirit and flesh for the Greeks, he cannily compares The Picture of Dorian Gray as a work of art to the green carnation (which Wilde used to suggest same-sex desire but not explicitly) as simultaneously masking and revealing its sexual implications. Chapter three contrasts Wilde's stance toward queerness with significant moments in queer theory of our time, arguing cogently that Wilde's implicit handling of the child is distinctive. Campbell distinguishes between Wilde as an icon for same-sex liberation and Wilde as the author of literary texts whose implications concerning sexuality may diverge from current dominant attitudes about gay identity. In describing the queer implications of Wilde's writings, Campbell draws effectively on David Halperin's How to Do the History of Homosexuality, which explores four aspects of sexual deviance that antedate the emphasis on object orientation: "effeminacy, paederasty, friendship, and inversion." Doing so enables him to give weight to queer failure as he responds to writings by Lee Edelman, Jose Estaban Muñoz, Heather Love, and Jack Halberstam.
Chapter four deals with the figures of child and lover in De Profundis, in Wilde's life, and in Salome, with, regarding the latter, consideration of incest and the politicizing of Wilde during World War I through the Pemberton Billing libel suit brought by the Salome performer Maud Allan. Campbell establishes that Wilde was important during the war because he was the target and representative figure for a homophobic, xenophobic conception of same-sex desire as debilitating for English masculinity. He interprets Salome in an original way as a clash between the visuality of Hellenistic culture and the aurality of Judeo-Christian culture. Chapters five and six both concern Owen, especially the influence of Robert Ross's circle on his thinking and his writing. As Wilde's literary executor and former lover, Ross provided a living conduit between Wilde and Owen. Campbell identifies Keats as an important precursor for both writers concerning supposed excesses of style and the sexual objections sometimes raised to Keats's work in the late nineteenth century. He argues that Owens's turn toward Decadent literature and toward the representation of combat experience...