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Andrew Elfenbein. Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role. New York: Columbia UP, 1999. ISBN 0231107536. Price: US$20.50.

  • Geraldine Friedman

…more information

  • Geraldine Friedman
    Purdue University

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Andrew Elfenbein's Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role takes for its subject the close association, dating from the late eighteenth century and still operative in some form today, between two seeming dissimilar categories: homosexuality and genius. Never predictable, the study intervenes in many of the most significant debates concerning eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature, as well as lesbian, gay, queer, and gender studies, and carves out its own highly original positions in them. In the current critical landscape, it perhaps most goes against the grain by asserting that aesthetics and literature have an irreducible importance to the history of homosexuality. Yet Romantic Genius cannot simply be called a formalist work, as that term is usually understood. More accurately, it historicizes the emergence of aesthetic categories by exploring their implication in a shifting sex/gender system. With its surprising and original claims, Romantic Genius may be said occasionally to stretch a point, but its innovative arguments are always worth reading. The book makes major contributions to the various fields in which it places itself, and scholars working in them will have to take it into account for some time to come.

Chapter 1, "The Danger Zone: Effeminates, Geniuses, and Homosexuals," sets out the historical link between the genius and the sodomite on which the rest of the study will draw while also departing from it. Elfenbein approaches this relation neither as a positive fact nor a causal connection, but rather in terms of popular representations, which associate both characters with lawless excess, anti-domesticity, and outsider status. Elfenbein traces these associations and their ambiguous meanings to the competition in the eighteenth century between two discourses on gender: an older one of civic humanism and a newer one of civil humanism. While the former prescribed one correct standard for human character and behavior—manly discipline and self-control, the latter posited two sharply dichotomous and essentialized species of virtue, one for men and the other for women. Both the male and the female genius were caught in the double binds produced by the misogyny of civic humanism and the dichotomousness and homophobia of civil humanism. The association of genius with feminine excess under civic humanism and the question raised by civil humanism of how far gender crossing could go before it went too far meant that the most admirable aspects of genius were "only a hair's breadth from the most despised behavior of the sodomite and sapphist" (27). Much of the interest and strength of Elfenbein's argument lies in the fact that it insists on the fact that there was no consensus as to whether gender crossing was a clue to dissident sexuality or not and does not rely on finding explicit connections between genius and sexual deviance in eighteenth-century treatments, but rather uncovers the suggestive commonalities that surround the male and female genius with "a faint trace of possible scandal [that] only heightened the symbolic value of a work of art and the supposed genius of its creator" (38). Because of its marginal status, genius was the perfect avenue for writers not belonging to the mainstream of the literary system to stake their claims as authors. As outsiders, they wrote from the "innovative margin of the eighteenth-century literary system," producing experimental writing, which included unconventional sex and gender representations as part of a larger claim for authorial status (38).

The subsequent chapters consist of studies of Beckford, Cowper, Anne Damer, Anne Bannerman, Blake, and Coleridge, who each in different ways partly adhere to and partly contradict the paradigm of genius set up in chapter one. By treating exceptional cases and emphasizing the historically uncertain relation between gender crossing and sexuality in them, Elfenbein shows the versatility of the discourse of genius and the various uses to which it could be put.

In chapter 2, "William Beckford and the Genius of Consumption," Elfenbein asserts that Beckford fits the eighteenth-century model in so far as he affirms the relation between genius and pedophilia, which made him a social outcast, and through the astonishing character of his writing. However, Beckford blatantly rejects the productive aspect of the genius as autonomous creator to fashion instead a paradoxical genius of consumption, which he realizes through his passion for collecting. Since collecting brackets the use-value of the object, its link to pedophilia entails a withdrawal from production and reproductive sexuality. This double denial is also a refusal of any masculine role and a deliberate choice of effeminacy, so that the boy becomes the ultimate collectible object. The chapter goes on to explore Beckfordian collection in a hitherto unpublished manuscript, "The Idyllium of Hylas," and Vathek. While the reading of "Hylas" brings to light a little known text and is interesting in its own right, the various themes of the chapter are most closely followed out and most consistently interwoven in the brilliant treatment of Vathek. Elfenbein discerns three types of consumption in the text, two of which are associated with the women characters Nouronihar, Vathek's love object who longs for things for their own sake, and Carathis, Vathek's mother who desires things as a means to power. The third type, associated with the Caliph Vathek, is where consumption is connected to homoeroticism. Vathek is slavishly dependent on those who can procure things for him, and Elfenbein draws on Luce Irigaray's influential essay "When the Goods Get Together" to demonstrate what he calls the homoeroticism of this procurement and of market relations in general. Since in speaking of "homosexuality" Irigaray means what has more recently come to be called "homosociality," he distorts her thesis somewhat, but it is a creative and perceptive distortion that attends to both the intense desire that drives and eroticizes consumption in Vathek and the potential proximity of homosociality and homosexuality in the text as well as in the organization of society itself. Elfenbein convincingly demonstrates the homoerotic associations of the Giaour, who supplies Vathek with luxury items. (The briefly sketched connection between the racialized representation of the Giaour and the sources of Beckford's own wealth in the slave economy of the West Indies is intriguing but underdeveloped.) In the end Elfenbein claims that the novel demystifies collecting by revealing the emptiness of the desire behind it, but for all his critical distance, Beckford no more avoids its mystifications than do his characters. He becomes an icon for nineteenth-century writers, such as Byron and Wilde, interested in the link between genius and homoeroticism.

Cowper, the subject of chapter 3, is in many ways an unlikely genius: he never claimed genius for himself, his writing lacks the sublimity that supposedly characterizes it, and, far from exhibiting the genius's supposed anti-domesticity, he was invoked in his time as a model for proper domestic behavior. Yet Cowper's nineteenth-century readers perceived him very differently and appropriated him posthumously for the cult of genius, and Elfenbein breaks new ground by focusing on this reception. His main contribution in this chapter is to identify Cowper as a new kind of genius, the domestic genius, and to understand him in terms of the rise of suburbia rather than the rise of industrial capitalism, which is the more usual context. In order to place the domestic genius in relation to the cult of the person at the heart of suburbia, Elfenbein crosses Eve Sedgwick's concept of homosexual panic with Pierre Bourdieu's theory of distinction. The suburban ideal encouraged all middle-class men to aspire to a distinctive private existence completely separate from their public lives, but with the proviso that they not become distinctive in the wrong way, for the danger existed that the difference of the suburban man could come to resemble the deviance of the sodomite. The chapter traces the ambiguities of distinction through Cowper's most famous poem, The Task, especially the autobiographical "stricken deer" passage, and posthumously published writings on his life by Cowper himself and others. What struck nineteenth-century readers in Cowper's verse autobiographical account was its mysterious lack of specifics, which, given Cowper's bachelorhood, revelations in the biographical materials of his struggles with madness, and a false rumor that he was a hermaphrodite, was in danger of being read as the secret of the modern, closeted homosexual. The rest of the chapter traces the strategies nineteenth-century readers found to enforce a distinction between bachelorhood and homosexuality. Since the poet was formative for nineteenth-century masculinity, Elfenbein argues that the problems of reading posed by The Task have a larger significance. He takes the poem to have "installed the structure of the closet at the center of the middle-class suburban psyche" in a way that gives rise to a paranoid homophobic surveillance of the "fragile borders of bourgeois masculine subjectivity" (89)

The next two chapters, on the sculptor Anne Damer and the poet Anne Bannerman respectively, exploit the feminine associations of sublime excess and the democratizing tendency of genius that allow it to be appropriated by women, but at the price of being seen as masculinizing themselves. The chapter on Damer highlights questions of evidence, which at least since the eponymous 1991 issue of Critical Inquiry, have held a prominent place in debates about gay, lesbian, and queer historiography. Damer lacked the sublime style and marginality that characterized the eighteenth-century genius, but on the basis of her artistic capabilities, she was perceived as cross-gendered, and this perception had diverse meanings for her admirers and detractors. In the eyes of the former, she was a genius, while among the latter she was rumored to be a sapphist. Taking issue with Randolph Trumbach's influential reading of Damer as an emergent tommy, or lesbian equivalent of the molly, Elfenbein undertakes to gauge her historical significance in terms of "a new uncertainty about how to interpret behavior as a key to sexual practice" (92). The "behavior" referred to derives from Damer's wealth and her elite status as an aristocrat. She could afford the expensive raw materials and tools of the sculptor, had the economic freedom to remain single after her husband's death, and, not burdened by the norms of bourgeois domestic femininity, engaged in overt political activities in the Whig cause. Her close relationships with women and the large measure of power she enjoyed motivated the libelous rumors, which first appeared after her husband's suicide in 1776 and resurfaced in 1789 and the following years. As Elfenbein points out, these libels must be understood in the context of attacks on the decadence of both aristocratic men and women in the second half of the eighteenth century. Yet Damer's aristocratic status gave her the means to answer the attacks. By undertaking patriotic subjects for her sculptures and acting in private theatricals staged by and for the most exclusive social circles, Damer presented an image of herself as a respectable woman with excellent social connections. Ironically, though, the same uncertainty that allowed the rumors to thrive in the first place also rendered Damer's attempts to produce a positive counter-image of herself a double-edged sword. Hostile readers saw her self-representations as evidence not of her respectability but of her aristocratic decadence. By insisting on exploring the ways in which uncertainty operates instead of aiming to resolve it, Elfenbein offers an alternative to the model of coded readings dominating gay and lesbian historiography today, which aim to uncover a subject's true sexuality. The limitation of this approach, he argues, is that it omits everything that cannot be subsumed under repressed creativity or social censorship, i. e., agency, money, and privilege. While this may be an unfair charge (for example, there is often labor involved in appropriating a code, let alone resignifying it, and access to any particular code can depend on privilege), Elfenbein's approach does have a substantial payoff. While avoiding the arbitrariness from which coded readings tend to suffer, it makes a case for the centrality of economics and class to lesbian history in a way that takes agency into account, but without uncritically constructing a master subject. The result is an admirably nuanced analysis of power as it circulates between Damer and her readers without belonging to either.

In chapter 5, "Lesbianism and Romantic Genius: The Poetry of Anne Bannerman," Elfenbein's claim that uncertainty can be used productively to understand the link between genius and homosexuality is put to the test, for very little is known of Bannerman's life and nothing at all about her sexuality. Indeed, this poet's work was unknown to modern readers before Elfenbein published an earlier version of this chapter in ELH in 1996, and for this reason alone, he is to be thanked. As he emphasizes, Bannerman's poetry differs sharply from that of most women writers of her time in containing women who boldly flout conventional femininity and refuse all heterosexual roles; yet same-sex desire is never their direct subject. The question is how to read these literary representations in relation to Bannerman herself, especially given the conflation between the work and the life that the eighteenth-century concept of genius invites. Elfenbein states his approach rigorously: "I want neither to assume on the basis of her poetry that she definitely had erotic relations with other women nor to dismiss her poetry's lesbian representation because the 'truth' of her sexuality cannot be proved. Instead, based on the evidence that does exists, I want to concentrate on factors that helped to determine why Bannerman wrote as she did" (132). He does an excellent job of demonstrating the power and haunting quality of her works, which are as bold in their narrative forms as in their sex/gender representations. In addition, the argument for reading Bannerman's representations in terms of lesbianism (while reserving judgment on Bannerman herself) is much more convincing when contextualized within the overall project of the book than when it stood alone in the ELH essay. Yet, finally, Elfenbein's suggestion that Bannerman's solitary women geniuses be read as a version of Terry Castle's apparitional lesbian is perhaps forced. One wonders if it would not be more convincing to connect their loneliness to onanism, especially since Elfenbein himself notes earlier that medical writers from this period were far more concerned about the ill effects of masturbation than of homosexuality (65). It is also disturbing that Elfenbein repeatedly characterizes the generality of writing by women in this period as "bland" and therefore inferior (134, 136, 141,and 146), a judgment that gives short shrift both to those literary productions and the large body of criticism that has come out on them in recent decades. However, he implicitly answers this objection himself when he issues a caveat against any identitarian reading that takes "analytical categories like gender or sexuality for granted as origins for poetic representation" (147). Elfenbein suggests instead that Bannerman's deviant solitaries are best seen in terms of the literary system in which she struggled and failed to have a career, because it made the female genius a rarity. Here, he is genuinely innovative, because he de-essentializes gender and sexuality while still keeping them in play and opposes reified clichés of the alienated romantic sensibility.

Chapter 6, "Genius and the Blakean Ridiculous" stands out from the rest of the study by letting Elfenbein's sensibility and sense of humor show through, for here he writes as a gay fan as well as a scholar, without, however, slackening his critical faculties. This chapter is written against the Blake industry's "poker-faced" readings (150) as well as feminist readings that accuse Blake of sharing in the sexism of his time. Using Milton as a proof text, Elfenbein offers an alternative reading of Blake as a camp poet who exposes the overblown egoism of his male characters, even when they attempt to atone for their narcissism. The project of this chapter is to show the ways in which Blake recovers the radical potential of genius from its conventional eighteenth-century forms, and its does so by finding a valorization of the unnatural in the incoherent and "omni-gendered" anti-character of Ololon. Interestingly, this unnaturalness differs not only from the heterosexual relations the poem has dramatized, but also the homosexual ones. It thereby constitutes a queer moment that, in Elfenbein's view, provides a "more welcoming 'in'" for gay readers of Blake than do the sexual encounters between men. Since Elfenbein uses the signifier "queer" for the first time in this chapter, it can be said to continue and "out" the anti-identitarian thrust of the Bannerman essay. His reading of Blake perhaps scores it greatest triumphs by refusing to attempt to master the difficulty of Milton by reducing it to simplistic narratives, such as the courtship plot between Milton and Ololon that other critics have discerned. Instead, Elfenbein resolutely poses that difficulty, which reaches it apogee in Ololon's speeches, as the means by which genuine liberation occurs; as the character who successfully rends the "sexual garment" and thus destabilizes all organized sexualities and genders (172), Ololon effects the entry of the text into queerness. In the process, Elfenbein also manages to recast the dauntingness of Blake's text as a source of delight and enjoyment. His willingness as a fan to embrace the queer challenge Milton poses echoes Ololon's enthusiasm and has the potential to win new fans for Blake.

If Blake returns to the eighteenth-century concept of genius, the argument of chapter 7 is that in Christabel Coleridge moves decidedly away from it, thereby also effecting an epochal shift in the character of lesbian representation. Through his success in publishing and his acquisition of the Wedgewood annuity, Coleridge had achieved a level of recognition that freed him from the need to invoke the stereotypes of genius and its grand gestures. The different path he takes is to free "lesbian representation from the layers of political, religious, and social meanings that it had acquired and treat it as pure enigma," thus transforming pornography "from the miscellaneous forms of eighteenth-century bawdiness to high art" (182). Here is a place where Elfenbein moves critical debate forward by demonstrating the genesis of formalism in particular historical circumstances, and his reading of Christabe l's newness as lesbian representation passes through a perceptive and careful analysis of its verbal detail. On the theoretical level, the most significant claim of this chapter is that the poem refuses a heterosexual interpretive frame. Although Christabel assumes a heterosexual male reader, Elfenbein insists that the poem does not pander to his expectations, since it refuses to offer Geraldine's unveiled body as an object for his gaze. In part 1, the poem instead effaces the signs of phallic male power to create an all-female magical world. Even in Part 2, where Christabel and Geraldine are placed between Sir Leoline and Bard Bracy, Elfenbein rejects a "between men" reading, because the fragmentariness of the poem keeps patriarchy from reasserting itself, and the projected marriage between Geraldine and Sir Leoline would not be a happy ending. Here and in his analysis of Bannerman's haunting, non-heterosexual women, Elfenbein offers a promising alternative to Judith Roof's theory of the "queer middle," in which heteronormative forms of closure squelch earlier moments of narrative opening. In taking up the feminist theory of the male gaze in a positive way, he suggests, somewhat against the grain of the Bannerman and Blake chapters, a new possibility for bringing feminism and queer theory together. In all, the argument of this chapter is at once highly ingenious and engaging. Yet some misgivings remain. Elfenbein sometimes proceeds by assertion rather than demonstration, for example, in the crucial but unsupported statement that Coleridge makes any understanding Geraldine's actions as political allegory "appear highly irrelevant" (188). In addition, the admittedly very attractive argument about the refusal of the male gaze relies on the blatant omission of the line following "A sight to dream of, not to tell," which Elfenbein takes to negate the heterosexual frame. For that next line clearly states that the negated view is not the male viewer's, but Christabel's: "Oh shield her! shield sweet Christabel!" Taking this line into account would not necessarily render a lesbian reading impossible, but it would force such a reading to proceed differently.

Elfenbein ends with a brief look ahead from the "prehistory" of homosexuality to its real history. After identifying Byron as the turning point, he sketches three twentieth-century directions for the homosexual genius that date from the 1920's. The genius as celebrity first appears in Radcliffe Hall's Well of Loneliness, which Elfenbein poses as the essentialist model. The genius as intellectual makes her entry in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which he calls the queer model. Finally, the genius as gifted child is introduced in the work of Lewis Terman, as a normalization of genius that, however, cannot completely shed its perverse associations. This quick but intriguing survey raises a number of questions at the center of contemporary gay, lesbian, and queer studies without explicitly addressing them. Chief among these is the precise relation between the prehistory and history of homosexuality. Elfenbein frames the study with implicit or explicit claims that the eighteenth-century concept of genius has enduring relevance for us today, but in assuming a difference between its prehistory and its history, he also suggests a discontinuity. That he does not raise this question directly is related to his relative comfort in using the term "homosexual" in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century context, a comfort that contrasts strikingly with struggle with terminology commonly seen in historicist work on sexuality in this period. These issues are involved in the ongoing reevalution of the work of Michel Foucault on sexuality. In the Cowper chapter Elfenbein engages and modifies Foucault, but without entering the broader Foucault debates. However, this omission is not necessarily a deficiency, since taking on Foucault has perhaps become as obligatory as some of his pronouncements once were. Elfenbein seems most interested in developing an approach where Foucauldian questions no longer play a determining role in what can and cannot be said. Romantic Genius is an admirable giant step toward a new mode of inquiry into sexuality and literature. Since in addition it offers both fresh understandings of familiar texts and engaging readings of previously unknown ones, it is a particularly valuable study.