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Chapter Four focuses on the Decadent modernist Harold Acton’s time in China and argues that Acton relies on the concept of kinship as he theorizes cosmopolitanism and transnational contact. Inspired in part by Decadent precursors, such as Vernon Lee, he insists that coming into true communion with other nations requires the eschewal of forms of heteronormative domesticity that might delimit mobility or inhibit openness to foreign experience. However, his work is haunted by anxieties about the slippage between cosmopolitanism and Orientalism, and he turns to kinship metaphors, to the figure of transnational adoption, to think through that slippage. He simultaneously suggests that extrication from conventional familial arrangement facilitates transcultural communion and worries, in his figuring of cultural appropriation as unsuccessful transnational adoption, that true transcultural communion is impossible. In examining the manner in which Acton thinks through and against the concept of kinship while theorizing cosmopolitanism, I highlight the influence on his thinking of women writers and artists, such as Vernon Lee, Nancy Cunard, and Anna May Wong, who shared with Acton a vexed relationship to family and marriage as well as the aspiration to move across national and racial boundaries.
Chapter 1 demonstrates the centrality of ideas of ‘emotionalism’ in those sexological writings that consistently present the body of the male homosexual subject as peculiarly responsive to music. The contentious issue of the place of emotion and the body in music likewise informs debates in Victorian musical aesthetics. In this discussion, an examination of John Addington Symonds’s and Vernon Lee’s respective stances on such questions allows for a demarcation of divergent attitudes towards music, embodiment and queer desire in late Victorian culture. In particular, an examination of Lee’s writings on music allows for the exploration of what might be called ‘shameful listening’.
Chapter 4 considers the significance of embodied encounters between musicians, listeners and musical instruments. It takes as its focus the experience of touch in musical encounters, charting the sensory intensities and eroticism inherent in fin-de-siècle literary depictions of touching musical instruments and scores and in feeling the transmission of the material touch of music in performance. The chapter examines encounters between bodies and musical instruments in Richard Marsh’s ‘The Violin’, Forster’s ‘Dr Woolacott’ and the anonymous pornographic novel Teleny. Tactile proximity between musician and instrument sees the musical instrument transformed in these texts into a technology for the transmission of touch. The experience of piano playing in Forster’s A Room with a View with Woolf’s The Voyage Out similarly suggests that tactile interaction between the body and the musical instrument allows for marginalized subjects to more fully inhabit a sense of their desiring bodies. Finally, in Vernon Lee’s writing about the archival remains of eighteenth-century music, her sensuous affective connection with the historical past is articulated through a wish for restored tactile contact.
Chapter 2 examines the significance of the association between music and masochism in texts by Walter Pater, Vernon Lee and Arthur Symons. Here music is variously figured as acting upon the body in a manner that resists the imposition of identity and refuses the coherence of the self, while turning instead to modes of self-abandonment and disembodiment. Music in Pater’s ‘Denys l’Auxerrois’ dramatizes a broader oscillation in his works between the denial and embrace of wilfully self-destructive masochistic violence. In ‘Marsyas in Flanders’ (1900), Vernon Lee strategically embraces the figure of Marsyas – an emblem of musical masochism – as a means of resisting the categorization of the queer body by fin-de-siècle sexology. In Symons’s ‘Christian Trevalga’ (1902) music becomes associated with a desire to abandon the materiality of the body and affirm instead a form of subjectivity defined by ‘disembodiment’. Symons’s essays on music and musical performance present the aesthetic autonomy of absolute music in a manner that articulates a form of dispersed subjectivity that can profitably be read in the light of contemporary queer theory.
Chapter 6 focuses on the introduction of empathy into the English language in 1909, and the blurring of the Victorian notion of sympathy as a social process and Vernon Lee’s conception of empathy as an aesthetic experience. As such, I read Lee as a figure of Modernism, finding within her work traces of a modernist aesthetic. It includes case studies of Lee’s partnership with poet A. Mary F. Robinson and Scottish artist Clementina “Kit” Anstruther-Thomson. Rather than a wholly sympathetic collaboration, the final chapter traces a model that is not necessarily reliant upon individuals coming together in concord, but is founded on the privatization of the aesthetic experience and the discord that arises due to the individualist qualities advanced by the aesthetic imperative.
Decadence turned to paganism to grasp not only animal intimacies but also engagements with the environment more generally. Building on the queer trans-species intimacies articulated by Swinburne, Pater, Solomon, and Field, Chapter 4 addresses Robert Louis Stevenson’s and Vernon Lee’s renderings of the environment as genius loci. As I argue, for Stevenson and Lee the genii locorum are not fixed locations in nature but ecological entanglements among animal and vegetal species, geographic formations, and climate. Stevenson and Lee extend Pater’s ecological correspondences by presenting the immersive experiences of the peripatetic as sensual and psychological engagements with nature that result in a more vital identification outside the self. And in situating their analyses within the growing cultural practice of the nature walk, their writings redefine the genius loci as a dynamic engagement suggestive of early environmentalism.
Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) was a foundational text for British Decadence. John Ruskin had vilified Renaissance Italy for its moral and aesthetic depravity, but for Pater and his followers the works of artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci became vehicles for a radical aesthetic that elevated intensity of experience as the goal of life and saw art as the most crystalized form of that experience. The Renaissance offered sensual enjoyment that could transform and re-enchant the experience of modernity. This chapter argues that it was the aesthetic and moral ambiguousness of the Renaissance that appealed to the Decadent imagination – its audacious blurring of the boundaries between good and evil, the spiritual and the carnal, beauty and ugliness, legitimate and illicit pleasures; its radical unsettling of conventional demarcations of gender, sexuality, place and historical period. For Decadent writers and artists such ambiguities were intellectually and personally liberating. Renaissance Italy provided a creative space in which to explore contemporary uncertainties and to mobilize a distinctively Decadent style.
This chapter traces a history of British Decadent sexualities as elemental, pre-normative attractions and fulfilments, considering how early sexological discourse encouraged conceptions of Decadent sexuality to arise and then likewise feed into more recent, posthumanist notions of eco-sexuality. But recognizing a non-binary Decadence of dissemination, proliferation and contagion requires one to imagine attractions and repulsions that do not merely decentre the human, but operate with a conceptual core that itself is not built in response to human identity, culture or politics in the first place. One possibility lies in Heinrich Kaan’s theory, articulated in his study Psycopathia Sexualis (1844), that a natural excess of imagination fosters realms of ‘chaos’ in plant and animal (including human) sexualities. Early sexological works such as Kaan’s encourage one to understand non-normative sexuality not as one of various deviations characterizing the Decadent movement, in fact not as a deviation at all, but as a natural phenomenon that preceded and gave shape to the cultural paradigms that Victorians and those who followed came to see as Decadent.
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