Queer Decadent Classicism: Late-Victorian Representations of Ancient Roman Literary Culture
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Queer Decadent Classicism: Late-Victorian Representations of Ancient Roman Literary Culture

  • Author(s): Thomas, Tara
  • Advisor(s): Freccero, Carla
  • et al.
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For late-Victorian authors and sexologists, Roman literary culture was essential to the development of the British decadent movement. My dissertation explores how authors including Walter Pater and Michael Field return to Roman epicureanism and decadence as a way of justifying their literary style and personae as gender and sexually nonconforming authors. Scholarship in the history of sexuality and nineteenth-century classical studies has tended to focus on the relationship between Victorian homosexuality and Greek pederasty using an older model of gay and lesbian studies. From this perspective, Victorian homophiles constitute homosexuality on the basis of Greek pederasty, reversing the discourse of the state to justify a newly constituted homosexual identity. My dissertation, by contrast, examines Victorian and Roman gender-sex deviancy from a queer theoretical lens. This research brings queer theory’s resistance to identitarian politics into Victorian neoclassical literature. Starting with the premise that an excess of sexual and gender categories flourished in imperial Roman society because the Romans neither sanctioned nor criminalized same-sex desire, I discuss how late-Victorian authors revived queer Roman literary history to prefigure their dissent from predominant gender-sex paradigms. “Queer Decadent Classicism” thus explores how nineteenth-century authors forged a genealogy from Roman literary figures and imagined a queer aesthetic history. My first chapter, “‘Aesthetically, Very Seductive’: Pater’s Homoerotic Epicureanism in Marius,” explores how Marius the Epicurean (1885), an historical novel, published the same year England re-criminalized homosexuality and set in second-century CE, the period affiliated with the rise of decadence and decline of Rome, represents a specifically Roman queer literary culture. I argue that Pater showcases several different models of homosocial intimacy available to Roman men. Within the novel, Marius’s “natural epicureanism” becomes not only a philosophy and lifestyle but also the literary style that Pater’s modern-day narrator self-consciously affiliates with nineteenth-century decadence. Tracing the roots of modern decadence to Epicurean philosophy helps Pater justify the connection between queer desire and aesthetic philosophy. After making a case for how Pater theorizes queer decadence in terms of a modern-day epicureanism, I turn my attention to Pater’s inserted translations, which he frames with homoerotic scenes between men. I show how the epicurean principle of egalitarianism allows Pater to reconstitute representations of homoerotic scholarship that level the conventional power dynamics of the ancient Greek world. Whereas the eromenos, the pupil philosopher and youthful lover, had for the most part acted as interlocutor in Greek dialogues, Pater imagines a more collaborative Roman literary community of co-authorship. Each homoerotic scene of classical reception Pater features in his novel—which includes literary criticism, translation, and adaptation of the classics— showcases collaborative authorship between men. Moreover, I demonstrate how Pater constrains heteronormativity within the inserted translation, while allowing homoerotic lives to flourish in the Roman world of the second century, formally echoing the decadent Roman world’s less restrictive hold on queer sexualities. The second chapter, “Metamorphic Aesthetics in Michael Field’s Ovidian Poems,” introduces unpublished poetry by the co-authors and lovers Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote classically themed poetry under the masculine pseudonym Michael Field. This chapter discusses how they turned to Ovid’s erotic epic to experiment with “mutatas formas”—textually as well as physically changed forms--to prefigure unfixed and fluid gender and sexual subjectivities. The first part introduces Field’s dramatic trialogue on the Philomela myth. In their version, two sisters change into a mating pair of songbirds, thus rewriting Ovid’s story about the power of sisterhood into a late-Victorian story about a queer feminist relationship. The second half of the chapter introduces Field’s Aphrodite poems, inspired by Sappho, written on the topic of the “gods in exile” popularized by Pater in Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) and subsequently used to analogize experiences of persecution, exile, and censorship under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. I discuss Field’s Aphrodite series, comprised of their unpublished translation of Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” and To an Exile,. arguing that this project merges Sappho’s Lesbian symbolism with Ovid’s metamorphic characters and poetics to articulate more clearly the model of queer feminist kinship they first explored in the Philomela trialogue. In my third and final chapter, I introduce Michael Field’s Roman Trilogy, a series of metatheatrical closet dramas situated in decadent Rome and featuring queer pantomime dancers, entitled The Race of Leaves (1901), The World at Auction (1898), and Julia Domna (1903). I argue that the genre of tragedy enables authors to disentangle queer decadence from its imperial history. Examining Field’s Roman Trilogy, I explore how Field re-elevates pantomime dancers, generally taken as symptoms of Roman decadence, to their origin as the creators of Greek tragedy according to Aristotle. On the one hand, this reevaluation helps Field make a case for the emergence of aesthetic decadence from the Greeks. On the other hand, Field also offers the pantomime’s queerness—gender fluidity and pansexuality—as a model of non-conformativity emerging alongside Greek pederasty. Interrogating the Victorian decadent movement’s queer representations of Roman decadence through the genres of the novel, lyric, and drama, my dissertation contributes to a lacuna in both Victorian and history of sexuality studies. I make a case for understanding decadence as a literary style and a philosophical lifestyle that developed apart from and in opposition to imperial decadence. By understanding decadence’s resistance to institutionalized forms of sexuality, I suggest that decadent authors anticipated queer theory’s insistence on ambiguity and fluidity, and in an anti-identitarian sexual politics we find mirrored in the experimental forms they created.

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This item is under embargo until May 11, 2023.