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literature

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Aestheticism  
 
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Reactions to Wilde's Aestheticism

In an era when the homosexual was "invented" by medical sexology as a separate species from the heterosexual, Wilde's aestheticism offered the retort that sexuality, like taste, was simply a heightened sensitivity to the beautiful.

Beginning with Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience (1881), Wildean aestheticism was the target of satire. Wilde is lampooned as the effeminate aesthete Reginald Bunthorne in an operetta whose popularity led Max Beerbohm to declare that it helped prolong the aestheticist movement after its heyday.

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More catastrophically for Wilde, Robert Hichens's The Green Carnation (1894), with innumerable sexual double-entendres, underlined the connections between aestheticism and same-sex erotics. Hichens spoofed the playwright and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie") as Mr. Amarinth and Lord Reggie, master wit and his slavishly imitative friend, leaving no doubt about Douglas's sexuality when he depicts Lord Reggie chasing a boy.

Although undoubtedly intended as an affectionate satire (Wilde himself expressed admiration for the book), The Green Carnation strongly confirmed Lord Queensberry's charges concerning Wilde's indecent sexual influence over his son, thus helping doom the playwright as a reckless corrupter of youth during Wilde's legal imbroglio.

It is perhaps an irony of the English aestheticist movement that its chief proponent, Wilde, and the author of a damning parody of aestheticism, Hichens, were both men of homosexual inclinations.

Henry James and Aestheticism

Henry James's unresolved attitude toward the aestheticist movement was in part a reaction to the implied and actual homosexuality of Pater, Symonds, and Wilde, which James undoubtedly found personally threatening.

James's first novel, Roderick Hudson (1876), was partly an exploration of the meaning of aestheticism for its painter-hero, but perhaps James's greatest fictional mediation on the subject is one of his finest short stories, "The Author of Beltraffio" (1884), which was modeled on Symonds's relationship with his wife, though James later explained that he was unaware of Symonds's homosexuality at the time of the tale's composition.

Having heard from Edmund Gosse that Symonds's wife intensely disliked her husband's writings on art, James conjured up the character of Mark Ambient, whose works herald the gospel of aestheticism.

One afternoon, while visited by the narrator, an admiring acolyte, Ambient's wife locks their sickly son into her bedroom. Before James's narrative is over, the child has mysteriously died, a casualty of its parents' unspoken dispute over Ambient's excessive devotion to an art devoid of moral purpose.

Aestheticism, "The Author of Beltraffio" suggests, is too dangerous for the cultivation of children; it begets moral chaos. In The Tragic Muse (1890), however, James refused to demonize Wilde in a figure based on the playwright, Gabriel Nash. "I drift, I float," announces the charming Nash when asked where he can be reached. "Where there's anything to feel, I try to be there!" Lightly satiric, a study in the harmlessness of aestheticism, the novel indicates that James was not wholly hostile to the aestheticist enterprise.

Moreover, as a man to whom nothing was allowed to happen so that the discipline of art might dominate him absolutely, James established his own unique and enduring aestheticist doctrine.

Reactions to Homosexual Aestheticism

In its self-conscious disengagement from the claims of the so-called world, homosexually inflected aestheticism was often less a defense of homosexual relations per se than a concerted effort at retreating from all convention, including compulsory heterosexual relations. With the achievements of such would-be heirs to aestheticism as Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, literary aestheticism lost much of its homoerotic impetus.

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