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Erotic Negativity and Victorian Aestheticism, 1864-1896


What is the relationship between erotic desire and aesthetic contemplation? This question was central to three of British aestheticism's most notable theorist-practitioners: Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget). “ Erotic Negativity ” contends that Pater, Wilde, and Lee exercised Hegel's concept of “ the negative ” to describe the relationship between aesthetic experience and erotic response. The aesthete, when he or she gazes upon homoerotic aesthetic representation, undergoes a shock that is at once both intellectual and visceral: this is the revelation of an erotic desire, previously hidden as a determinate absence in the mind, which shatters and radically reconfigures the structure of consciousness itself. This process, which Hegel terms the “ encounter with the negative, ” elicits not only greater self-knowledge, but also critical insight into the cultural and historical significance of the aesthetic object. “ Erotic Negativity ” thus demonstrates that the most profound critiques of modernity must ground themselves in the reflective freedom that is created by artistically mediated experiences of erotic desire.

Chapter one discusses Walter Pater's early essays, up to and including Studies in the History of the Renaissance , as the Aesthetic Movement's most elaborate and influential explication of negative homoeroticism. Chapter two examines Pater's post- Renaissance writings, such as “ A Study of Dionysus, ” Marius the Epicurean , and Plato and Platonism . In these works, Pater turned to early anthropology to show how erotic violence, rather than undermining the humanist subject, actually enables the creation of that subject through an aesthetically mediated homoerotic encounter with the negative. Chapter three discusses Oscar Wilde's novella “ The Portrait of Mr. W.H., ” which advances a homoerotic reading of Shakespeare's sonnets to express the insight he gains from the theory of erotic negativity: namely, that language's limited ability to capture the "truth" of erotic desire need not undermine the fundamental perdurability of individual subjectivity. Finally, chapter four shows how Vernon Lee's essay “ Faustus and Helena: Notes on the Supernatural in Art" ” and her fantastic tales “ Oke of Okehurst ” and “ Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady ” create a feminist revision of masculine homoerotic negativity by presenting women's supernatural encounters with history as erotically charged experiences that create new forms of feminine sexual subjectivity.

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