Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century
by George E. Haggerty
(Columbia University Press)

George Haggerty wrote some sensitive and illuminating studies in the mid-1980s–early 1990s, but he has been infected by the virus of queer theory, and in Men in Love his native good sense has nearly sunk beneath the waves of postmodern sexual dogma. His text is overburdened with numerous 60–120-word quotations from Michel Foucault, Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, and Slavoj Zizek – theorizers not noted for the clarity of their writing. To this brew are added small helpings of half a dozen feminists (invariably quoted on the subject of destablizing heteronormative patriarchal hegemony), a generous dollop of Julia Kristeva, and the usual seasoning from Freud.

Haggerty has revamped some earlier essays to make them fit the pomosexual model, presumably to meet current demands for sophisticated theorizing. In his essay on Beckford, for example, a structural-linguistic introduction is tagged onto otherwise unexceptionable material reworked from an essay published in 1986. The Morning Herald’s merely clever joke about "the rumour concerning a Grammatical mistake of Mr. B[eckford] and the Hon. Mr. C[ourtenay], in regard to the genders" is given the full treatment of pretentious theorizing: "Grammar . . . becomes the figure of hegemonic control . . . exercised most effectively at the level of language. . . . The passage . . . ascribes a subjective potentiality – by means of an inscription that renders subjectivity itself a grammatical impossibility. . . . Grammar works . . . to marginalize and control that which it finds threatening."

Poststructural linguistics has led Haggerty to the ludicrous claim that to be the object of a preposition is to be subordinated to the prepositional position. Haggerty's insensitivity to the praxis of language is further demonstrated by his absurd claim that Gray "lapses into French and Latin as a way of avoiding the power of his own feeling" On the contrary, Gray was in fact an expert linguist and always employed other languages to enlarge rather than conceal his meaning.

Haggerty's essay on Gray partly reworks material published in 1992 which employs Kristeva’s theory of "abjection." In fact any pre-pomosexual theory about dejection and the repression of desire will work perfectly well to illuminate Thomas Gray’s poetry and his melancholy. Haggery’s close reading of Gray’s <Elegy> is good in its details, but marred by overgeneralization. To claim that the commemoration of desire as loss is specific to "the construction of bourgeous subjectivity in the later eighteenth century" is to ignore the entire elegiac tradition of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance periods.

The terms "bourgeois" and "middle-class" are applied indiscriminately to virtually all of the men discussed in this book (though only Beckford’s economic background is specifically mentioned). Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) depicts "an allegory of the capitalist crisis of middle-class experience" even though the hero constitutes "the alienated protobourgeois subject." To claim that a novel illustrates simultaneously premature and overmature capitalism sounds rather like having your cake and eating it too.

Haggerty's argument for a significant shift in the history of sexuality is supported by setting Georgian homoerotic love/friendship against "the libertine ethos" characterized by "sexual interest in both men and women" and sexual power rather than love. But "the libertines" are represented here only by Rochester's pornographic verse and Sedley's blasphemous balcony scene – both of which are instances in which homoeroticism is used specifically to shock society rather than being representative of society. The alleged "libertine ethos" is merely an idiosyncratic blip in the otherwise continuous history of sexuality in which heterosexuality predominates and homosexuality is typical of a minority.

Haggerty’s use of psychological theory is even less sound than his use of economic theory. His Lacanian analysis (more precisely, Lacan second-hand via Zizek) of Boswell’s hypochondria as the sinthome of sensibility – "the signifier of sensibility’s ruse, of its ability to abstract the body as a cultural product and to isolate the bourgeois subject from himself" – is little more than a reimagining in pomosexual tropes of the banal truth that sensibility is a fashionable pose.

Haggerty's concentration on men of sensibility directs our attention away from less sensitive men who were also homosexual. The mollies (whom he barely mentions) and many better-bred men had a taste for men without an accompanying taste for art. For example, all the concentration on Horace Walpole's special sensitivity and secrecy seems beside the point when we note that his older and coarser brother Edward was prosecuted for sodomy (but acquitted) and was almost certainly a sodomite (as I suggested in 1992 and as N. M. Goldsmith argues in The Worst of Crimes, 1999). Beckford and Lord Hervey are the only ones in Haggerty's sample who was overtly homosexual – Walpole and Gray were probably suppressed homosexuals. Large conclusions about "men in love" based upon such a foundation is bound to be incomplete.

One measure of the inutility of queer theory has been its failure to have either enlarged or diminished the canon of "homoerotic" texts. Haggerty’s choice of representative texts is old hat: the homoerotic valence of the Coupler scenes in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse was highlighted by Montague Summers in the 1930s; Walpole’s letters were discussed by Xavier Mayne in 1908; letters by Gray and Beckford were highlighted in Anderson and Sutherland’s anthology of erotic friendship in 1961; Lord Hervey has been recognized as a pansy for generations. All of these figures were identified as "sexual intermediates" by Magnus Hirschfeld and other German writers in the nineteenth century. Edward Carpenter’s term "homogenic love" was less prejudiced and more accurate than Haggerty’s unproblematical use of "transgressive sexuality." William Beckford’s father the Lord Mayor’s political views were more "subversive" and more threatening to King George III than the pederastic pecadilloes of William Jun.

Haggerty's reluctance to use the word "homosexual" and over-use of the neologism "homosocial" have not altered the choice of texts to which the terms apply. Haggerty's claim that the histories of sexuality undertaken in the past few years enable new understandings is only partly true: what they enable are little more than new doctrines about heteronormative bourgeois hegemony and male-male desire operating in the service of capitalist economy. Such theories are politically prescriptive rather than analytically descriptive.

Many of Haggerty’s grand theories are tendentious, supported only by postmodern doctrine rather than by empirical historical data. His claim that the eighteenth century exhibits wholly new forms of masculine sexual perceptions/constructions ignores the continuous history of male love for the past thousand years. The male love-letters of Lord Hervey, Gray, Walpole and Beckford really cannot be distinguished from the male love-letters of Marcus Aurelius, Bo Juyi, Saint Aelred, Marsilio Ficino, Hubert Languet, King James I/VI, Henry James, Jean Cocteau, to mention a few. The love they express cannot be assigned to specific cultural periods, much less attributed to the rise of capitalism and the middle classes. Heartbreak and longing are the stuff of romance, heterosexual or "homosocial," early modern or postmodern.

(Part of this critique was originally published in The Scribblerian. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

Return to Reviews and Critiques
Return to Gay History and Literature