Book Review of Michael Matthew Kaylor's Secreted Desires—The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater and Wilde (Brno, Czech Republic: Masaryk University, 2006), 457 pages.
Michael Kaylor’s Secreted Desire reads as a monumental inter-disciplinary tour de force, engaging as it does with literary theory, Queer Theory, cultural studies, history, sociology, hermeneutics, philosophy, and politics. His particular approach to pederasty and to sexual epistemology in general, will, if it has not done so already, upset social constructionist and mainstream feminist purists alike. Kaylor breaches convention by disavowing recent discursive formulations of late 19th century Victorian expressions of “Greek Love” or “Pedagogical Eros” as themselves problematic refractions of a dominant late modern sex/ gender paradigm. For example, he disputes Eve Sedgwick’s 1990 claim in Epistemology of the Closet that such expressions of male intergenerational love can so neatly fit within a homosocial/ homosexual binary, with such “practising individuals” devoid of both sexual identity and ultimate means of expression.
Kaylor’s text focuses on the subterranean, pederastic literary and cultural “movement” previously covered in 1970 by d’Arch Smith in Love in Earnest: Some notes on the lives and writings of English ‘Uranian’ poets from 1889 to 1930. In fact, J.Z. Eglinton consulted d’Arch Smith before publishing, along with Warren Johansson, Greek Love in 1964, which d’Arch Smith later critiqued as insufficiently scholarly. Nevertheless, a lot of proverbial water has passed under the troubled bridge of the topic surrounding adult sexual desire for children and adolescents since d’Arch Smith’s attempt to resurrect public interest in this nascent (arguably still-born) pederastic literary tradition. It is indeed hard to overstate the intensely hostile environment that today pervades academic and public attitudes to such a topic. For example, Jim Kincaid in Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (1998), likens the late 20th century Anglo-American cultural hysteria against the pedophile as a “rendering from the species,” rather than mere benign “othering” as a medical-psychiatric anomaly and/ or “child abuser.” Given this context, Kaylor’s bravery in tackling this literary pederastic tradition, and the multiple ways it has literally been erased from history, is commendable and immensely courageous.
The main chapters deal with: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ pederastic sexuality, including a highly detailed reading of his “Epithalamion” and the critical discussions surrounding it; the ‘Paederastic Pedagogy’ advocated in Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean; and finally, a subversive reading of Oscar Wilde’s “The Young King” as ‘Paedobapistry.’ Kaylor argues that those Uranian poets fell foul of the conventional mores of their day, not to mention contemporary misreadings of the pederastic under/overtones in their works. The curious irony is that these writers maintained that they were in fact upholding mainstream literary, aesthetic and cultural values handed down from Classical Greece, through the European Renaissance, to themselves. Yet they were constantly aware of the dangers of public censure in their own time resulting from any disclosure of overt pederastic advocacy, never mind actual relationships with boys – a situation that remains the case today, as Kaylor notes through interspersing footnotes covering more recent news items. Perhaps this dichotomy explains the Uranian quandary which he recognises as a continuous theme through to late modernity between discretely cautious practitioners like Pater, and the more brazen effrontery exemplified by Wilde. Even contemporary researchers such as Claire Morris at Cambridge University have identified such a demarcation within her sample of ‘contact’ and ‘non-contact’ boylovers. Hopefully her PhD will finally be completed.
Kaylor’s broader sexual historiography consciously delineates the homoerotic and pederastic dimensions to highlight the problematic way that late Victorian expressions of “Greek Love” such as those of Hopkins, Pater, and to a lesser degree Wilde, are re-narrated as often subliminal, only tangentially alluded to, referenced as a form of chaste male intergenerational homosocial bonding, and/ or dissipated within a generic homosexual mode of being. He convincingly argues that those Uranian poets, along with many of their circle, possessed their own intricate codes (expressed through personal letters, textual and intertextual poetic references, and occasional remembrances of actual fleeting encounters) to denote an essential aesthetic and physical beauty possessed only by adolescent boys and/ or young men. These writings also detail a continuum of male emotional, intimate and physical desire/ love for boys that was often expressed discreetly but which was, in its own terms, clearly spoken and unashamed.
However, Kaylor could have perhaps developed more on other aspects, notably Donald Mader’s insightful additions examining: the American influence, significant political dimension, and finally, the erotisation of class as well as generation differences amongst the Uranians. Mader also identified the author of Men and Boys when he did an introduction to the reprint in 1970. In a new introduction to that work (see William Percy's website), he decided to drop the distinction between "Calamite" - a neologism coined by Algernon Charles Swinburne - and Uranianism because of the close connection between the American and British circles.
Kaylor’s claim may contradict, or even fall short of, conventional social constructionist definitions of sexual identity. However, as the anthropological work of Stephen Murray shows in relation to the same issue, many non-Western cultures have developed popularly recognised colloquial and formal terms to describe a sexual persona (including a composite range of erotic desires and interests) which define and describe adult male “boylovers,” whilst allowing space (within prescribed limits) for such relationships to take place. Although rarely moving outside a relatively small coterie of followers, Uranian influence criss-crossed geographical locale - stretching from the UK, to continental Europe, and even across the Atlantic - whilst sustaining a continuous influence in the writings of William Johnson, Digby Dolben, through to more recent contributors such as Guy Davenport. Perhaps Kaylor’s most provocative and telling observation is that intergenerational male relationships, rather than an eccentric fad, pathological indulgence, or patriarchal imposition, have been, and will continue to remain, an omnipresent feature throughout Western culture, and across humanity itself as Goethe famously remarked.
Richard Yuill MA, PhD
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