“That thrilling longing I had felt grew more and more intense . . . my whole body was convulsed and writhed with mad desire. My lips were parched, I gasped for breath, my joints were stiff, my veins were swollen . . . My brain began to reel as throughout every vein a burning lava coursed, and then, some drops even gushed out—I panted—I sat there dumb, motionless, nerveless, exhausted.”Anonymous, Teleny, or the Reverse of the Medal, 1893Footnote 1
The opening episode of the anonymously published pornographic novel Teleny (1893) reads, at first, like many other erotic narratives, charting a familiar orgasmic trajectory of arousal, stimulation, climax, and release. Camille Des Grieux recalls this sexual event to an unnamed interlocutor, setting the pornographic narrative in motion. Yet the scene is atypical in that the stimulus of Des Grieux's orgasm is neither physical contact with another person nor a masturbatory act. Rather, his sensations arise from the tones of a Hungarian rhapsody played on a concert piano.
Teleny begins when Des Grieux attends a charity concert in Paris with his mother, a patroness of the arts. When the pianist René Teleny begins to play, Des Grieux immediately responds to the charms of his music. He tells the interlocutor that the kinds of Hungarian melodies Teleny performs “begin by shocking us, then by degrees subdue, until they last enthrall us” (2). Teleny's performance ignites acute bodily sensations in Des Grieux—the convulsing, writhing, gasping, panting, stiffening, and swelling described above. As the music “whisper[s]” in Des Grieux's ear, he even begins to feel a phantom hand moving across his lap: “[S]omething was bent and clasped and grasped, which made me faint with lust. The hand was moved up and down, slowly at first, then faster and faster it went in rhythm with the song” (5). This stimulating hand is placed, not on Des Grieux's body, but on the piano keys. It is in a concert hall, rather than a bedchamber, that Teleny's erotic narrative begins.
Often considered the “first gay porn novel,”Footnote 2 Teleny repeatedly pairs its portrayals of same-sex erotic encounters with instances of music listening and performance. In many ways, this pairing is not surprising. As scholars in the field of queer musicology have argued, despite its associations with conservatism and traditionalism, classical music has long served as a space for transgressive sexualities—from opera castratiFootnote 3 to “Sapphonic” singersFootnote 4 to those who “cruise” in the opera house.Footnote 5 As Suzanne Cusick writes, “If music isn't sexuality, for most of us it is psychically right next door.”Footnote 6 Victorian thinkers often linked music to sexual transgression. From the cello jacket that Oscar Wilde wore to the opening of the Grosvenor GalleryFootnote 7 to the same-sex relationships of composers like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Ethel SmythFootnote 8 to the musical writings of aesthetes like Walter Pater and John Addington SymondsFootnote 9 to the social-scientific studies by “sexologists” like Edward Carpenter and Symonds that described “inverts” as “greatly attracted to music,”Footnote 10 music and same-sex desire regularly collided in the nineteenth-century imagination.
Literary critics often argue that the cultural associations between music and sexuality rendered music an apt code, metaphor, or allusion for “the love that dare not speak its name” in Victorian texts.Footnote 11 When Wilde casts Dorian Gray's murderous Alan Campbell (with whom Dorian enjoys a unique “intimacy”) as a violin player,Footnote 12 when the poets Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (“Michael Field”) use the motif of birdsong to connote erotic longing,Footnote 13 or when Amy Levy draws on the wordplay offered by the title of Beethoven's Third Symphony (the Eroica) to depict an “extended metaphor for love-making,”Footnote 14 music often serves as a figurative stand-in for that which was unspeakable in the nineteenth century.
Despite the cultural links between music and same-sex desire in Victorian literature and culture, however, fewer critics have attended to music's presence in Teleny. This is surprising, given the centrality of music to the novel's plot and publication history, particularly the publisher Leonard Smithers's statement that Teleny's subject was “recently treated in a veiled manner in an article in a largely-circulated London daily paper, which demonstrated the subtle influence of music and the musician in connection with perverted sexuality.”Footnote 15 Instead, critical attention often centers on Teleny’s legacy as an early work of same-sex erotica or a “classic erotic novel of homosexual love.”Footnote 16 Critics also puzzle over Teleny's vexed publication history—its status as an anonymously published work that emerged rather mysteriously from the fin de siècle decadent and aesthetic subcultures through which its characters travel.Footnote 17 The question of Teleny's authorship has intrigued publishers and scholars for over a century, particularly due to the text's tenuous associations with Wilde and rumors that he had authored the novel.Footnote 18
A few critics have explored the role of music in Teleny. Some argue that music helped the authors of fin de siècle homoerotic fiction like Teleny to tie same-sex love to aesthetic beauty and the high culture venerated by British intellectuals.Footnote 19 Joseph Bristow, for instance, argues that Teleny associates the encounters between Des Grieux and Teleny with “aesthetic experiences that transcend the flesh.”Footnote 20 David Deutsch argues that writers like Pater, Wilde, and the authors of Teleny linked homoerotic desire to music, an artistic medium that was increasingly valued in Britain as a way for the middle and upper classes to consolidate their cultural capital.Footnote 21 Fraser Riddell traces the “queer geographies” of musical spaces in Teleny, such as the Queen's Hall in London and the “Orientalized landscapes of Spain, Egypt, and Babylon” to which Teleny's music transports Des Grieux.Footnote 22
Often, critics discuss music as a euphemism or metaphor for desires that cannot be explicitly named. Joe Law, for instance, proposes that music often served as a “code for same-sex desire” in fin de siècle texts like Teleny.Footnote 23 Musicologists, too, often focus on music as a coded language, looking for, as William Cheng writes, “aesthetic traces of passing and sublimation” and “musical codes and closets.”Footnote 24 Music's ties to the “imaginary,” the “unnamed,” the “unspecified,” and the “unattached” has long rendered it the perfect euphemism to describe the “love that dare not speak its name.”Footnote 25
While the critical emphasis on music as a code helps explain its prominent role in texts and contexts in which illicit desire needed to remain “unnamed” and “undescribed,” works of pornography like Teleny—marketed to and distributed among underground networks of readers—patently rely upon a lack of codes, metaphors, or veiled language, hinging instead on frank depictions and narrations of sexual acts.Footnote 26 As we see in the scene above, the authors of Teleny have no qualms about highlighting sexual encounters and the bodily sensations that accompany them (even down to the “drops” of an orgasmic release).Footnote 27 Teleny's musical scenes, then, operate less as vague appeals to aesthetic beauty or coded stand-ins for sexual encounters, but rather as direct explorations of the physiological sensations that accompany both musical and sexual experiences. Subtitled, after all, a “Physiological Romance,” Teleny draws parallels between musical and sexual encounters to cast both as deeply embodied experiences that ignite equally potent pleasures, desires, and sensations. As with Des Grieux's sonically induced orgasm, musical and sexual sensations become blurred; sound waves and imagined touch fuse, heightening the pleasures of both.
Exploring the science of music physiology that emerged during the Victorian period helps us consider why Victorian authors found such generative parallels between music and sexuality. In the mid-nineteenth century, scientists like the German physician Hermann von Helmholtz and the English physicist John Tyndall began to study the processes of sound transmission and reception. They determined that sound was a physical entity comprised of thousands of particles that moved through the air in series of measurable waves. Moreover, they realized that sound had physiological as well as physical power. They understood the ear as an infinitely complex organ comprised of nerves, bones, fibers, and membranes, which vibrated in response to the sound waves that penetrated the ear's inner cavity. Sound—and in particular music, the type of sound that vibrated most regularly and thus powerfully—affected the entire body, precipitating muscular movements, igniting convulsions in the limbs, increasing heart rates, and inducing sweat.Footnote 28 Humans’ responses to music were automatic and intense.
Scenes of music listening and performance thus had enormous potential for Victorian writers seeking to capture the nuances of corporeal life in explicit, nonfigurative ways—not as “codes” or metaphors for acts that occurred behind closed doors, but rather as parallel processes of arousal, stimulation, pleasure, and satisfaction. As we see in the novel's opening—and as nineteenth-century music physiologists would have understood—the “writhing,” “convulsing,” and “quivering” that Des Grieux experiences can just as easily be caused by the vibratory impulses of sound waves—the “whisper” of the music—as by the touch of a lover's hand. Musical response occurs on the same spectrum of physiological pleasure as does sexual arousal. Accordingly, then, I read Teleny less as a narrative of coded “homosexuality”Footnote 29 or strictly male-male desire and more as an exploration of multiple forms of bodily experience—a “physiological romance” of an array of sensations and pleasures. It is for this reason that I use the more capacious term “queer”Footnote 30 to capture the range of physical intimacies that the novel describes—between men, between groups of men, between groups of men and women, and between humans and music itself.Footnote 31
In addition to enhancing the “physiological romance” of Teleny, scenes of embodied music-making and listening also heighten the novel's political interventions. Critics have argued that Teleny not only represents but also validates same-sex desire in a culture that demonized those who deviated from bourgeois, nuclear family formations, particularly on the heels of the 1885 Labouchère Amendment and on the eve of the 1895 Wilde trials.Footnote 32 Ed Cohen, for instance, suggests that Des Grieux's speech to his interlocutor, in which he explicitly rejects the notion that his love for Teleny is a “crime,” offers one of the “most articulate defenses of same-sex love to be found in late Victorian fiction.”Footnote 33 Bristow, too, contends that Teleny’s “political potency” emerges in its portrayal of the phallus as “glorified” and beautiful (“almost as if it were a still life”) rather than abject, as well as in its ties between same-sex desire and intellectual erudition, which “lend[s] scholarly authority to its impenitent portrayal of gay sex.”Footnote 34 Building on such claims, I propose that the text's use of music, specifically, to defend queer desire has a particular political resonance. By invoking the language of music physiology to draw parallels between musical and sexual responses, I argue, the authors of Teleny articulate an insistent defense of queer desire as—like musical response—a natural process rooted in the organic, and often involuntary, actions of the muscles and nerves of the human body. By pairing the feelings of nervous agitation and sensory pleasure induced by music with those caused by sexual stimulation, the authors of Teleny cast queer sexual relations as not only pleasurable but also natural, relatable, and, crucially, explainable by science. While Teleny certainly does not shy away from its decadent sensibilities—the text leans into and even revels in moments of debauchery, depravity, and degeneracy, such as, as Matt Cook writes, the “cruising” scenes in the “abject area” of the Quai—the text's musical moments tell a different story.Footnote 35 In Teleny’s musical scenes, sexual desire and pleasure transform from licentious indulgences in dark street corners into sensations akin to those induced by acoustical demonstrations at the Royal Institution. Music helped the authors of Teleny place queer desire in the context of bodily phenomena that scientists were beginning to understand as automatic, inevitable, and universal.
Teleny's use of music physiology to cast queer desire as “natural” is particularly powerful given that sexual “inversion” was most often denigrated as patently unnatural in Victorian society. Nineteenth-century legal and medical discourses described same-sex desire as a “crim[e] against nature,”Footnote 36 “depraved and unnatural,” “against the order of nature,”Footnote 37 an “unnatural offenc[e],”Footnote 38 and an “unnatural habi[t] and tast[e]”Footnote 39 and associated sexual “inversion” with syphilis, cancer, tuberculosis, neurosis, degenerative nerve disease, and insanity.Footnote 40 By tying queer erotic relations to music physiology, however, the authors of Teleny link them to a discourse that described bodily sensations and responses as automatic and inevitable processes that many people experience.Footnote 41 As Des Grieux makes clear in the opening scene, Teleny's Hungarian music “jars upon our ears” and “enthrall[s] us” (2, emphasis mine). Des Grieux's parched lips, quick breath, and stiff joints, then, are as much involuntary responses to the music—something that any listener might experience—as they are signs of his erotic desire. Des Grieux's “crime against nature” is in fact based on the very natural actions of his nervous and circulatory systems.
Teleny's investments in biology are certainly disorienting in a novel otherwise invested in, as Bristow argues, privileging high-cultural aesthetics and “point[ing] an instructive finger at the medicolegal establishment.”Footnote 42 After all, many works of the aesthetic movement emphatically privileged art over flesh; as the consummate aesthete Vivian proclaims in Wilde's “The Decay of Lying,” “My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature.”Footnote 43 Moreover, Teleny's appeal to science to depict certain desires and bodies as “natural” also reads as deeply uncomfortable, both in the context of the violent histories of Victorian science as well as in light of more recent feminist and queer theoretical rejections of biological essentialism and determinism. In the nineteenth century, scientific discourses about “natural” biological traits were often misused in the service of eugenicist, colonialist, and sexological aims. In the Victorian period, ideas of “naturalness” were often weaponized against those marginalized by sex, race, class, and gender, whom scientists, doctors, and other intellectuals often deemed naturally unintelligent,Footnote 44 naturally primed for hard labor,Footnote 45 or as dangerously unnatural, as mentioned above. Teleny's appeal to biology also chafes against contemporary feminist and queer theories that reject the idea of an innate bodily “core,” as Judith Butler famously argued, or the notion that the body organically behaves in certain ways.Footnote 46
Indeed, as critics like Diane Mason, Benjamin Bagocius, Matt Cook, and Christopher Wellings have pointed out, Teleny does at times recapitulate such essentialist scientific rhetoric to violent ends. Mason, for instance, argues that Teleny's death at the end of the novel evokes Victorian “medicalised” discourses about “perversion” and “degeneration” as seen in Victorian sexological case studies that pathologized same-sex desire.Footnote 47 As Bristow points out, the association between homosexuality and death takes on more Orientalist undertones in the scene in which the character of the “Spahi” dies as a result of a glass bottle penetrating his anus.Footnote 48 As Cook and Wellings demonstrate, the rhetoric of “naturalness” is also used against women in the novel, whom the narrative grotesquely essentializes as aggressively hyper -natural—slimy, scabby, oozing, and cadaverous.Footnote 49 In such moments, Wellings writes, Teleny issues “horrifying warnings against women and female sexuality.”Footnote 50
Yet, in the novel's musical scenes, biological language also has other implications. In moments of musical listening and performance, we see instances in which a particular branch of nineteenth-century science—the science of music physiology—worked not to demonize, but to defend, alternative sexual proclivities and practices. The authors of Teleny found enormous potential in the idea that they could appeal to notions of empiricism and objectivity to defend bodily experiences otherwise disparaged in their world. Sound physiology enabled the authors of Teleny to cast the body not as a marker of death and disease but as a site of invigoration, pleasure, and gratification. In Teleny’s musical scenes, characters’ sexual sensations align not with syphilitic illnesses or mental neuroses but with beating hearts, moving limbs, sweating skin, and vivid memories. Science, Teleny shows us, could actually enable sympathetic representations of queer bodies and desires.
In its musical moments, then, Teleny might resonate more with queer, affect, and feminist science theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Elizabeth Grosz, Elizabeth Wilson, and even Butler herself,Footnote 51 who have urged a return to the body as a site of radical critique.Footnote 52 Grosz, for instance, writes that biological and feminist thinking are not incompatible: “What are the virtualities, the potentialities, within biological existence that enable cultural, social, and historical forces to work with and actively transform that existence? How does biology—the structure and organization of living systems—facilitate and make possible cultural existence and social change?”Footnote 53 For the writers of Teleny, indeed, the notion that bodies acted, operated, and responded according to scientific laws, “organizations,” and “structures” proved to be a powerful tool, particularly for those whom science was often mobilized against.
In its simultaneous defense of queer erotics and use of biologically essentialist nineteenth-century science, then, Teleny reminds us of the uncomfortable—but often inevitable—enmeshment of radical politics and problematic discourses in works we often hail as transgressive. The authors of Teleny reclaim a discourse often used against them, but one that is nonetheless still tinged with essentialist and determinist implications. Moreover, the authors’ use of classical music in particular means that the path to subversion that they envision is inevitably limited to specific classes, races, and genders—those with the means to attend concerts,Footnote 54 access to musical education,Footnote 55 and the permission to perform in public.Footnote 56 After all, as Philip Brett writes, music is at once a deviant and privileged sphere—one that provides a space for sexual alterity but is also reserved for those with talent, status, and access to high culture.Footnote 57 As I will discuss in the conclusion, reading Teleny in this context resonates with current queer theoretical conversations about normativity, resistance, utopian desires, and idealized cultural objects. How do critics read with, against, and through texts that are at once liberatory and limited, resistant and repressive, daring and disappointing? How do we grapple with our own critical desires to claim texts like Teleny as hallmarks of queer literature when they betray other problematic investments and deviate from utopian ideals? How might our feelings of unease and discomfort be generative for thinking through the entanglements, complexities, and multiplicities—indeed, perhaps, the very “queerness”—of our objects of study?
Acoustical Science and Music Physiology in Victorian Culture
Acoustical science emerged as a distinct field of study in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as scientists began to shift their attention from sight to sound.Footnote 58 The German physicist and musician Ernst Chladni studied the phenomenon of sound vibration by placing sand on glass plates and observing its movements in response to the sounding of tuning forks or the drawing of violin bows across the sides of the glass.Footnote 59 Chladni discovered that the sand would shake itself into distinct, orderly patterns, revealing the material effects of sound on the environment.
What sound did to sand and floors, scientists soon realized, it could also do to the human body. In his 1863 work On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, Helmholtz introduced the concept of “sympathetic resonance” to explain the phenomenon that Chladni discovered with his sand plates.Footnote 60 According to Helmholtz, physical objects could vibrate at the same frequencies as sounds produced nearby. The theory of sympathetic resonance explains why, for instance, an opera singer's voice can shatter glass—or why, in popular legend, Ludwig von Beethoven's floor would shake as he played the piano with especial vigor.Footnote 61 Helmholtz suggested that human bodies, too, could respond to specific sound waves and argued that the process of hearing resulted when sound tickled hairlike nerve fibers in the cochlea (the inner cavity of the ear).Footnote 62 According to Helmholtz, sound also affected the rest of the human body, including the muscles, nerves, and skin.Footnote 63 Though all kinds of sound and noise could induce physiological responses, Helmholtz argued, music in particular was the primary bearer of physiological sensations, as it was the type of sound that vibrated most regularly and thus could affect human bodies most intensely.Footnote 64
Tyndall, Edmund Gurney, John William Strutt (Third Baron Rayleigh), and others also published works on the sensitivity of the human body to musical vibrations and rhythms. Tyndall demonstrated that sound waves cause “shivers” or “tremors” in humans’ auditory nerves.Footnote 65 Gurney applied Helmholtz's ideas to music theory, particularly the concepts of melody, harmony, rhythm, and pulse.Footnote 66 Strutt discussed the ear's “wonderful sensitivity” to musical vibrations that traveled rapidly through the air.Footnote 67
These discoveries in the field of music physiology intersected with a growing intellectual movement that emphasized the material nature of aesthetic response. Proponents of “physiological aesthetics,” a term coined by Grant Allen in his 1877 book of the same name, argued that humans’ responses to art were fundamentally bodily phenomena, rooted in the unconscious and automatic actions of the muscles and nerves.Footnote 68 Several physiological thinkers focused on music as an aesthetic stimulus. In her 1933 book Music and Its Lovers, for instance, Vernon Lee interviewed hundreds of “music lovers” about the bodily sensations they experienced while playing or listening. Based on their responses, she described the “sensorial deliciousness . . . of musical sound” and discussed how music's rhythms and pulses ignited kinesthetic responses in humans.Footnote 69
The scientists of the mid- to late nineteenth century thus ushered in fundamentally new conceptions of music as something indelibly tied to the body, something that could be measured, analyzed, and explained according to physiological data. As Helmholtz wrote, music and physiological science were now inextricable:
I was unwilling to separate the physiological investigation from its musical consequences. . . . [T]he reader, who takes up my book for its musical conclusions alone, cannot form a perfectly clear view of the meaning and bearing of these consequences, unless he has endeavoured to get at least some conception of their foundations in natural science.Footnote 70
For Helmholtz and his fellow acousticians, the arts and sciences were not oppositional fields but mutually instructive discourses.
The ideas of Helmholtz and his contemporaries proliferated throughout Victorian culture—largely due to the popularity of Helmholtz's and Tyndall's lectures at the Royal Institution and the publication of books like Helmholtz's Sensations, Tyndall's Sound (1867), Strutt's The Theory of Sound (1877), and Gurney's The Power of Sound (1880). Though some musicians were threatened by the encroachment of scientific discourse into the musical realm—as the English musician Swinderton Heap wrote in The Musical Herald in October 1893, “a physiologist cannot make a singer; that requires a musician”—many embraced the new language of music physiology as a way to describe the power of their art, understand their audiences’ responses, and enhance their own performances.Footnote 71 Music physiology soon became a central component of Victorian music curricula, as music students throughout Britain encountered acoustics and sound physiology in their course materials and university exams.Footnote 72 An early “music therapy” movement emerged as doctors and surgeons studied music's healing effects on the nerves, the blood, and the circulatory system.Footnote 73
It is not surprising, then, that new advancements in sound science also made their way to members of the Victorian literary community. Literary critics such as Gillian Beer, Jay Clayton, and John Picker have explored the role of sound physics in Victorian literature: of George Eliot's depiction of the “roar on the other side of silence” (Picker), of urban street noise in Romola (Picker), of Hopkins's imagery of sound and light waves (Beer), of Hardy's interest in Charles Wheatstone's “enchanted lyre” (Clayton), or of Tennyson's engagement with new sound recording technologies (Picker).Footnote 74 Building on these studies, I show how music physiology enabled the authors of Teleny to foreground the relationships among the body, sexuality, and aesthetics.
Music Physiology in Teleny
As discussed earlier, a scene of musical performance opens the novel and precipitates the erotic relationship between Des Grieux and Teleny. Most critics focus on the metaphysical “visions” of Egypt and Spain that both Des Grieux and Teleny see during their first performance,Footnote 75 or they argue, as Cohen does, that Des Grieux's rapturous response “violate[s] the dominant Victorian associations of masculinity with science and reason.”Footnote 76 I propose, however, that science in fact works to make the scene more concrete and to illuminate its erotic potential. Words like “convulsed” and “writhed,” as well as the images of Des Grieux's tense muscles, stiff joints, and “swollen veins,” echo nineteenth-century acoustical discoveries of music's ability to incite bodily action. Helmholtz described the “agitations” and “twitterings” of the muscles and nerves in response to the sounding of tones in the ear.Footnote 77 Gurney, too, wrote of music's kinesthetic potential: “In melody . . . there is perpetually involved something more even than a suggestion of movement, namely, a direct impulse to move; which is not only felt but constantly yielded to in varying degrees.”Footnote 78 In this context, Des Grieux's response reflects not vague, metaphysical rapture but rather intense—and scientifically explainable—physiological arousal.
In fact, Des Grieux at first only attributes his bodily sensations to the music. As mentioned earlier, he reflects to his interlocutor that the Hungarian music of the kind Teleny plays is uniquely “sensuous” because of its minor scales, “rare rhythmical effects,” and rules of harmony that make it “ja[r] upon our ears” (2–3). Des Grieux explains,
A nervous organisation—having once been impressed by the charm of a tsardas—ever thrills in response to those magic numbers. Those strains usually begin with a soft and low andante, something like the plaintive wail of forlorn hope, then the ever changing rhythm—increasing in swiftness—becomes “wild as the accents of lovers’ farewell,” and without losing any of its sweetness, but always acquiring new vigour and solemnity, the prestissimo—syncopated by sighs—reaches a paroxysm of mysterious passion, now melting into a mournful dirge, then bursting out into the brazen blast of a fiery and warlike anthem. (4)
Here, the litany of musical terms (“accents,” “rhythm,” “andante,” “syncopated,” “dirge,” “anthem”) specifically links Des Grieux's “writhing” and “convulsing” to the music itself. Des Grieux, a discerning listener with in-depth knowledge of the history and cultural conventions of classical music—so much that at one point his interlocutor says, “Oh! please no technical terms, for I hardly know one note from another”—is able to attribute his convulsing, writhing, and stiffening to the rhythmic and dynamic intricacies of Hungarian compositions (2). Moreover, while the neurological language in this passage—“nervous organisation” and “paroxysm”—might at first evoke contemporary associations between sexual “inversion” and nervous disease, the scene can also be read as a nod to acoustical theories that highlighted the pleasurable processes of music listening. Helmholtz suggested that human bodies behaved like “nervous pianos” that reacted to specific sonic frequencies and that the hairlike nerves in the ear resembled the strings on a musical instrument.Footnote 79
The “thrill” of Des Grieux's nerves, then, can be attributed to the specific charm of a tsardas, a Hungarian folk dance that has an especial ability to “impres[s]” a “nervous organisation.”Footnote 80 Language like “ever thrills” and “usually” suggests that such responses frequently coincide with Hungarian music and are its expected effects. While critics have linked Des Grieux's arousal in this scene to either his vision of Teleny or to a masturbatory act,Footnote 81 it is also the music itself that induces the orgasm and makes Des Grieux's body thrill. In the context of nineteenth-century sound science, Des Grieux is able to convincingly tell his mother that “it must have been your concert that upset my nerves” (15).
The merging of the musical and the erotic persists as Des Grieux recalls the effects of the performance on his body. Again evoking Helmholtz's “nervous piano” metaphor, Des Grieux feels his “nerves were so utterly unstrung that a maudlin song would just then have exasperated me, whilst another intoxicating melody might have made me lose my senses” (6). He feels his body “quivering from head to foot” (6). While this passage verges on an expression of music's dangers, the conditional language here (“would have,” “might have”) suggests that while Des Grieux might be on the brink of exasperation, he remains safely in the realm of pleasurable quivering, in the “intoxicating” proximity to “senselessness.”
Elsewhere in the performance scene, Des Grieux more freely links his musical and sexual desires: “[T]he pianist's notes just then seemed murmuring in my ear with the panting of an eager lust, the sound of thrilling kisses” (4). In the context of scientific discourses that understood music as exerting measurable effects on the human ear, this moment takes on especially vivid physiological import. The image of the “kiss” “murmuring” does not simply serve as a fanciful metaphor for romance, but rather suggests the actual ways in which the sounds Teleny produces titillate Des Grieux's ear. The phrase “eager lust” further merges the sensations of sound and the sensations of sexual desire. In the context of Victorian sound science that understood the ability of music to travel through space and excite the nerve fibers and tiny hairs inside the human ear, this passage evokes a material exchange between Teleny and Des Grieux. The music and the musician merge grammatically as the notes are attributed to the pianist, not the piano or the music.
This intermingling persists as the narrative weaves together Des Grieux's physiological response to the music and his erotic response to the performer. Des Grieux tells the interlocutor, “He in beauty, as well as in character, was the very personification of this entrancing music. . . . As I listened to his playing I was spellbound; yet I could hardly tell whether it was with the composition, the execution, or the player himself” (4). Here, music is not a metaphor but rather a vehicle for erotic arousal. In a reversal of common literary uses of music as a metaphor for human experiences, here, it is the man—Teleny, with his “beauty” and “character”—who “personifi[es]” the music. The fact that Des Grieux cannot precisely name the source of his pleasure—whether the piece, the performance, or the performer—is suggestive; erotic sensation not only coincides with, but is inextricable from, musical response.
Charles Hirsch's French edition of the text—the version he claimed was the “original” and that he rereleased in 1934—further highlights the collapse between musical and sexual arousal. The text reads, “[L]es notes du pianiste murmuraient à mes oreilles, avec le halètement d'une fiévreuse concupiscence, le bruit d'une roulade de baisers.”Footnote 82 The word fiévreuse, which translates to “feverish,” evokes an even more stark bodily sensation than its counterpart in the English edition, “eager.” Furthermore, the phrase “roulade de baisers” directly merges musical and sexual interactions. A roulade is a musical “run” or “trill,” and a baiser is a “kiss,” so in translation the phrase reads “a run of kisses” or a “trill of kisses.” Moreover, beginning as early as the seventeenth century, baiser has also been a common slang term for an act of copulation (often translated as “fuck” or “screw”).Footnote 83 The French edition of Teleny thus even more starkly links music to corporeal sensation, further casting sound as a method for actual physical interaction, whether a “kiss” or something more.
As Des Grieux's narration of the opening performance continues, the visceral contact between music and listener becomes even more candidly erotic. As discussed earlier, Des Grieux's listening experience precipitates the feeling of being touched:Footnote 84
But suddenly a heavy hand seemed to be laid upon my lap, something was bent and clasped and grasped, which made me faint with lust. The hand was moved up and down, slowly at first, then fast and faster it went in rhythm with the song. My brain began to reel as throughout every vein a burning lava coursed, and then, some drops even gushed out—I panted—All at once the pianist finished his piece with a crash amidst the thundering applause of the whole theatre. . . . I was powerless to applaud, I sat there dumb, motionless, nerveless, exhausted. (5)
In this passage, the expected physiological response to music—signaled by words like “nerveless”—coincides with sexual stimulation and a resultant orgasm. The rhythm of the song provides the context by which Des Grieux imagines a hand on his lap, and the end of the piece coincides with his ejaculation. Here, Des Grieux's “nerveless” and “exhausted” state is attributable not solely to erotic yearnings or musical response but also to their merging. The fact that these sensations coincide with the rhythm of the piece further links the music to the sexual act; the pulsations he feels are directly bound up with the rhythm of the music. Again, Hirsch's French version heightens the corporeal intensity of the scene:
[M]on corps entier se convulsa en une rage érotique. J'avais les lèvres sèches, la respiration haletante, les membres raides, les veines enflées, et néanmoins, je me tenais impassible comme ceux qui m'entouraient. . . . Le vertige s'empara de mon cerveau, une lave brûlante courut dans mes veines, quelques gouttes jaillirent. . . . Je palpitai. . . . J'eus un sursaut, je tremblais.Footnote 85
In this version, the narrator enumerates a slew of bodily responses—including tears, halted breathing, swollen veins, and stiff membres—a word that, in French, can refer to both limbs and sexual organs. The French version also offers a collection of references to other bodily states with words like vertige (vertigo) and palpitai (to beat or to quiver). Moreover, the line “comme ceux qui m'entouraient” (like those around me) casts Des Grieux's experience as something experienced by the other audience members. Here, Des Grieux's response to the music is at once erotic and reminiscent of recognizable—and indeed common—physiological sensations.
The concert precipitates the relationship between Des Grieux and Teleny. After the performance, Des Grieux—parched from his reaction to Teleny's music—goes backstage to get water and meets Teleny, who reveals that he could feel Des Grieux listening to him while he played. Teleny tells Des Grieux that he is a “sympathetic listener”: “A person with whom a current seems to establish itself; someone who feels, while listening, exactly as I do whilst I am playing, who sees perhaps the same visions as I do” (8). While critics have discussed this scene in terms of contemporary trends in psychical research,Footnote 86 I argue that this moment is equally indebted to nineteenth-century acoustical science. The phrase “sympathetic listener” ties the interaction between Teleny and Des Grieux to Helmholtz's theory of “sympathetic vibration.” Des Grieux “quivers” in response to Teleny's music; in acoustical terms, the two men are at the same frequency. While Teleny's statement about the “current” between them may seem to be merely a metaphor for their felt kinship, in the context of Victorian theories that uncovered the ability of human bodies to “vibrate” in response to sound, this moment testifies to a physical encounter between the two men.
As the novel progresses, music continues to be the source of the erotic contact between Teleny and Des Grieux. We learn that Teleny plays “far more brilliantly and more sensationally” when his “sympathetic listener” Des Grieux is in the audience (33). Des Grieux tells us, “I only lived during those short moments when he was on the stage. . . . At times the space between us seemed to lessen and dwindle in such a way that I felt as though I could breathe his warm and scented breath—nay, I actually seemed to feel the contact of his body against my own” (32). Musical performance fosters physical touch even in the absence of actual proximity. Even apart from the concert scenes, Des Grieux continues to experience his relationship to Teleny in terms of music physiology. In several instances, Des Grieux likens his infatuation with Teleny to the neurological phenomenon of getting a song stuck in one's head, or what we would now call an “earworm”:
The more I tried not to think of him, the more I did think. Have you in fact ever heard some snatches of a half-remembered tune ringing in your ears? Go where you will, listen to whatever you like, that tune is ever tantalising you. You can no more recollect the whole of it than you can get rid of it. If you go to bed it keeps you from falling asleep; you slumber and you hear it in your dreams; you wake, and it is the very first thing you hear. So it was with Teleny; he actually haunted me, his voice—so sweet and low—was ever repeating in those unknown accents. Oh! friend, my heart doth yearn for thee. (18)
In his 1885 book Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, the German scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus described such musical recollections as processes of “involuntary memory retrieval.”Footnote 87 Similarly, Gurney discussed the power of music to “arrest the ear and haunt the memory”—to “ge[t] into the blood and clin[g] to the memory.”Footnote 88 In this context, then, Des Grieux's desire for Teleny emerges not as a dangerous infatuation but as a common—and involuntary—neurological process.
As we can see with words like “tantalizing” and “haunted,” Des Grieux is ambivalent about this earworm. The image of the song keeping him from sleeping might seem to cast it as an agent of annoyance. The reference to the “snatches” of the tune as being “half-remembered” and the detail that Des Grieux cannot “recollect the whole of it” suggest that his musical memory is incomplete; it is just partial recall. Yet this earworm is still tied to extreme physical pleasure. It enables Des Grieux to recollect Teleny's “sweet and low” voice. The term “tantalizing” evokes torment but also connotes teasing, excitement, taunting, and desire. Although earworms were—and still are—discussed as annoyances or even acts of torture—the composer Robert Schumann allegedly went insane after being unable to rid his brain of the sounding of a specific series of tones—for Des Grieux, the sonic memory of Teleny's music is a “sweet” haunting.Footnote 89 Importantly, the language here also casts earworms as inevitable. Though Des Grieux tries not to think of Teleny, the tune keeps ringing in his ears, as if willing him to recall the memory of his lover's music and relive the pleasures he once experienced; he cannot help but think of anything else. Moreover, the appeal to the “you”—at first directed at the interlocutor but then transformed into a more universal moniker (“you can no more recollect”)—casts the earworm, not as a form of madness or disease, but as a phenomenon to which everyone can relate.
The “earworm” allows Des Grieux not only to remember Teleny's music but also to feel the physiological sensations the music induced in him when it was played “live”:
And now his lovely image never left my eyes, the touch of his soft hand was still on mine, I even felt his scented breath upon my lips; thus in that eager longing, every now and then I stretched my arms to seize and to strain him to my breast, and the hallucination was so strong in me that soon I fancied I could feel his body on my own. A strong erection thereupon took place, which stiffened every nerve and almost made me mad; but though I suffered, still the pain I felt was sweet. (18)
Auditory sensation transforms into a multisensory experience that encapsulates sight, touch, and smell; replaying Teleny's music in his head ignites for Des Grieux not only the remembrance of—but also the physical reinvigoration of—multiple sensory apparati. The memory of Teleny brings Des Grieux “almost” to madness but remains (“still”) a “sweet” merging of pain and pleasure. Moreover, the earworm grants Des Grieux an experience of eroticism even with one who is not present, punctuated by Des Grieux's action of straining his arms and physically feeling Teleny's body on his own. Music offers as much potential for erotic interaction as does touch.
Earworms again foster concrete physical encounters later in the novel, when Des Grieux hears the tones of Teleny's music and voice replaying in his head:
[Teleny] then began to whisper words of love in a low, sweet, hushed and cadenced tone that seemed like a distant echo of sounds heard in a half-remembered ecstatic dream. . . . I can even now hear them ringing in my ear. Nay, as I remember them again, I feel a shiver of sensuality creep all over my body, and that insatiable desire he always excited in me kindles my blood. (92)
This passage is certainly not without ambivalent words (“shiver,” “creep”), and Des Grieux's desire is frustratingly “insatiable.” Yet the use of the present tense—words like “even now,” “feel,” “kindles,” and “remember”—demonstrates that these physical experiences are still now occurring in Des Grieux's body. Through musical memory, Des Grieux and Teleny's erotic encounters can to some extent persist. Des Grieux's erotic life is not fully relegated to the past; music offers him a way to relive—to reproduce—his sexual experiences for later sustenance. Like the gramophones, phonographs, and other sound technologies that were emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, the body itself, the authors of Teleny imagined, could act as a mechanism for sound preservation and reproduction. At a time when Victorian thinkers were deeming same-sex desire to be patently unnatural due to its inability to reproduce, the auditory action of Des Grieux's own brain allows him to keep alive—to replay—his erotic encounters.
As the novel progresses, the narrative transitions into a series of descriptions of Des Grieux and Teleny's sexual encounters and the development of their romantic relationship. Crucially, the authors use the same language to describe the sexual relationship as they do to describe Des Grieux's musical responses. In one scene, for instance, Des Grieux and Teleny entwine their fingers together: “All the blood vessels of my member were still strongly extended and the nerves stiff, the spermatic ducts full to overflowing” (13). This passage harkens back to the musical arousal Teleny feels “throughout every vein” in the novel's opening and the orgasm he experiences upon first hearing Teleny's Hungarian melody. Later, Des Grieux discusses the “supple, mesmeric, pleasure-giving fluid in his fingers”—the reference to the fingers serving as a nod to Teleny's piano playing (73). Later, Des Grieux describes his desire for Teleny as “coursing with the blood or running rapidly up the nervous fibres”; he feels “a convulsion . . . a quivering delight which everyone has felt, to a greater or less degree—often a thrill almost too intense to be pleasurable” (74). The “almost too intense” quivering here recalls the actions of Des Grieux's body at the concert hall in the novel's opening scene—verging on dangerous but still within the realm of delicious pleasure. The phrase “which everyone has felt, to a greater or less degree” universalizes Des Grieux's sensations; his response to Teleny is something “everyone” might recognize. In these moments, the novel transposes the language of music physiology onto depictions of sexual encounters. By mapping the language of vibrating nerves, circulatory arousal, and tingling skin—recognizable musical responses—onto scenes of erotic encounter, the narrative invites us to consider whether the erotic sensations Des Grieux feels are just as scientifically explainable as those that occur when he hears music.
The musical scenes in Teleny also provide the foundation upon which the novel emphasizes the naturalness of the erotic relationship between Teleny and Des Grieux. In one scene, the interlocutor refers to Des Grieux's “natural tastes” (33). In another, Des Grieux reveals that he was “predisposed to love men and not women”—the word “predisposed” signaling a kind of organic proclivity (19). Cohen argues that in such moments, Teleny “deconstructs those definitions of human nature that deny the homoerotic as unnatural” and attempts to “validate same-sex desire.”Footnote 90 While these passages more directly insist upon the naturalness of same-sex desire, the musical scenes render such desires more broadly relatable to the “dispositions” that music could create.
As the novel progresses, we learn that Des Grieux's musical arousal is not just something to which everyone could hypothetically relate (“which everyone has felt, to a greater or less degree”), but rather something to which others do in fact relate in the world of the novel. The text soon makes clear that Teleny's performances thrill all of the audience members—not just Des Grieux. Des Grieux tells the interlocutor that “all those whose blood was not frozen with envy and age were entranced by that music. His name, therefore, began to attract large audiences, and although musical critics were divided in their opinions, the papers always had long articles about him” (33). Teleny's performance arouses public fascination; the “entranc[ing]” qualities of his music are sanctioned in the public sphere of print culture. Later, Des Grieux, exasperated by the attention Teleny attracts, tells his auditor about another one of Teleny's concerts, at which “the whole crowd was thrilled” (62). The word “thrilled,” while not overtly erotic, captures the universality of Des Grieux's experience. Such moments thus call us to ponder whether Des Grieux's response is as “abnormal” or “unnatural” as some Victorians may have thought. If such an arousal is “degenerate,” then it is a degeneration shared by all in the concert hall.
In a reversal of common Victorian attitudes about same-sex desire as pathological, the authors of Teleny instead ascribe pathology to cross-sex encounters. While music and physiology collide to highlight the naturalness of same-sex desire, cross-sex interactions emerge as abjectly hyper -natural—associated with waste, animality, death, and disease. When Teleny has sex with a woman, for instance, he gazes at her “with all the loathing we feel when we look at a kitchen table covered with the offal of the meat” (42). In another scene, Des Grieux associates a brothel with “some loathsome, scabby skin disease” and “mixed stench of musk and onions” (27). He is horrified by the whores’ appearances; their dresses are covered in “some slimy viscid fluid, which had left large spots everywhere, made them seem as if all the snails of Burgundy had been crawling all over them” (28). He describes a whore's vagina as having the “colour and the look of stale butcher's meat” (29). Des Grieux then illustrates a scene in which a “poor cadaverous wretch” dies while she is having sex with one of the men; her blood vessel breaks as she orgasms (28). The novel further indicts “heterosexual” interactions when we learn that Des Grieux's mother has been paying off Teleny's debts in exchange for sex. These moments are certainly in line with the “antinaturalist misogyny” that Elaine Showalter, Talia Schaffer, and others locate in fin de siècle aesthetic and decadent circles.Footnote 91 Here, there are certainly no moments of “life-giving” “sweetness” or “eager lust” as we find in the novel's musical scenes. As critics have discussed,Footnote 92 these formations of heterosexuality in Teleny serve as foils for queer desire, tied as it is in the text to aesthetic beauty and life-affirming naturalness. In Teleny, the grotesque excess physicality that Victorian moralists attributed to same-sex desire is located in the world of cross-sex desire.
The ending of Teleny is inarguably tragic, as Teleny kills himself after Des Grieux finds him sleeping with Des Grieux's mother. Some critics have seen this ending as a somber reflection of queer failure and repression. Mason, for instance, writes that in the text, “there is no way for sex to succeed . . . sex cannot be celebratory, it can only be pathological and problematic.”Footnote 93 Law writes, “Not even the pornographic, pansexual Teleny, narrated by a moribund Des Grieux, seems able to posit a world in which the homosexual can live securely.”Footnote 94 Bristow asks why such devastating moments occur in this novel that otherwise “takes such a rebellious stand against authorities that wish to pathologize the music-loving sodomite.”Footnote 95 Others have located more redemptive potential in the novel's conclusion; Caleb points out that Des Grieux “finds himself another man to love (in the form of the auditor), and even promises to tell us more sexually charged stories . . . at the end of the novel.”Footnote 96 Still others have suggested that, as a work of decadent literature, whether or not Teleny's ending is satisfying or redemptive is in fact beside the point. Cook, for instance, writes that Teleny serves as an “amoral reworking” of The Picture of Dorian Gray and presents a “decadent sexual agenda, which is more conclusively closed down in Wilde's novel.”Footnote 97
Indeed, whether or not we locate any hope or morality in Teleny's ending, we can look to the text as a whole to see how it used music as a literary strategy to represent—and defend—queer desire.Footnote 98 By calling readers to draw parallels between the physiological sensations of a concert hall and those of erotic life, the authors assert that the desires Des Grieux and Teleny share are not unnatural, but rather reflective of the most fundamental actions of the muscles and nerves of the human body. While we cannot shy away from the novel's tragic ending or the moments where it leans into its debauchery and depravity—indeed, attempts to reclaim the novel entirely would obscure its decadent investments—we can attend to the text's musical moments as instances in which the writers talk back to those who deemed same-sex desire an “unnatural offence.”
Conclusion: Teleny and De-Idealized Queer Readings
Particularly given Teleny's devastating ending, critics have debated the extent to which Teleny should truly be considered a touchstone of queer literature.Footnote 99 Reading Teleny through the lens of music physiology also raises questions about its radical potential. As I have argued, Teleny uses music to offer radically affirmative portrayals of queer desires as natural, universal, and scientifically explained, showing that bodies can experience a multiplicity of pleasurable sensations through a variety of sources, both aesthetic and erotic. But the appeals to “naturalness” on which Teleny hinges are also deeply problematic—both in their relation to women in the text, whose bodies are described as innately grotesque, and in their broader contextual ties to biological determinism and essentialism.
Teleny thus serves as an important reminder that even texts which offer “reparative” imaginings of queer life do not always realize fully liberatory or utopian representations.Footnote 100 Queer theorists such as Elizabeth Wilson, Robyn Wiegman, Annemarie Jagose, Jasbir Puar, and Kadji Amin have interrogated the notion that “queer” necessarily means “antinormative” or “resistant,” suggesting instead that norms might have a more “garbled” nature than we often allow.Footnote 101 As Amin writes, by promoting utopian narratives of transgression and antinormativity, the field of queer studies risks “revalorizing deviance” and precipitating a “romance of the alternative” that obscures texts’ and authors’ other, sometimes more troubling, investments.Footnote 102 Amin proposes the framework of “de-idealization” for thinking about queerness as both resistant and nonresistant, fulfilling radical hopes and ideals while also reinstating other, more problematic ideas. De-idealization, Amin writes, is
a form of the reparative that acknowledges messiness and damage, refuses the repudiating operations of idealization, and acknowledges the way in which complicity is sometimes necessary for survival. It names a form of queer inquiry, which I understand to be already under way, that offers a less binary, less repudiating account of the constitutive entanglements of queer and deviant cultures within a range of modes of social power.Footnote 103
Indeed, Teleny shows us the kinds of “garbled” “entanglements”—and the “de-idealized” readings necessary—when science is used in the service of sexual representation.Footnote 104 Music physiology allows us to see how Teleny operates both against, within, and alongside a set of shifting, intersecting, and conflicting norms. What is perhaps most “queer” about Teleny, then, is its refusal to cohere to neat paradigms of oppression and resistance, domination and liberation, norm and antinorm. As Sedgwick reminds us, “queer” does not always mean working “against” norms; it can also mean moving “athwart” or “across” them: “That's one of the things that ‘queer’ can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excess of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically.”Footnote 105
At the same time that Teleny suggests we can find liberation in unexpected places, it also reminds us that the tools of resistance are often inherently limited. Queer reading is thus perhaps always an experience filled with gaps and frustrations. Our first task may be simply to listen to the “dissonances and resonances” that the voices from the past present to us.