THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




‘An Uninterrupted Current:’ Homoeroticism and Collaborative Authorship in Teleny

Robert Gray and Christopher Keep


Described by Neil Bartlett as ‘London's first gay porn novel,’ Teleny: Or The Reverse of the Medal: A Physiological Romance of To-Day first appeared in 1893 in a private edition of two hundred copies. No author's name was given, but its publisher, Leonard Smithers, issued a prospectus in which he described the writer of the new work as ‘a man of great imagination . . . [whose cultured] style adds an additional piquancy and spice to the narration.’ Rumors soon circulated that the ‘man of great imagination’ in question could only be Oscar Wilde, whose novel The Picture of Dorian Gray had appeared three years earlier amid much clamor concerning its ‘mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.’1 Wilde was indeed well known among the burgeoning gay subculture of the early nineties. Sporting the green carnation that was the distinguishing mark among homosexuals in Paris, the popular playwright, critic, and novelist openly—even recklessly—flouted his homoerotic lifestyle. Among his acquaintances was Charles Hirsch, owner of the Librairie Parisienne, a bookshop that specialized in French literature but also carried on a thriving sideline in erotica. Wilde was a regular customer there and Hirsch had furnished him not only with works by Zola and Maupassant but with others of a more ‘Socratic’ nature—the popular euphemism for pornography.


Hirsch is the source for the story concerning Teleny's authorship. He claimed that in late 1890 Wilde arrived at his shop with a carefully wrapped package. He arranged to leave it with the bookshop owner, saying that it would be picked up by another man bearing his card. The man Wilde named appeared shortly thereafter and retrieved the package, only to return in a few days' time with the same package and instructions that it would be picked up by yet another man. This procedure was repeated several times over the next few months until, on one occasion, Hirsch's curiosity got the better of him and, taking advantage of a loose ribbon, he opened the package and found a manuscript bearing the single word ‘Teleny’ on the title page. The package that had made its way from man to man by way of his shop was the manuscript of a pornographic novel that had apparently been written in chain-letter fashion, each author contributing a chapter to the text before passing it on to the next. According to Hirsch, the manuscript (which is apparently lost or in some private collection) was an ‘extraordinary mixture of different handwriting, erasures, interlineations, corrections, and additions obviously made by various hands.’2 It was this manuscript that was published in the edition brought out three years later by Smithers. If Hirsch's account is to be believed, Teleny's anonymity preserved not the unique and consequently vulnerable identity of a specific artist but instead served to acknowledge that the text was, in effect, the work of a community as opposed to an ‘author’ in the proper sense.


Subsequent criticism of Teleny has largely revolved around the issue of Wilde's putative involvement in the text, with biographers, editors, and critics lining up on either side of the ‘he wrote it / he couldn't possibly have written it’ divide. Rupert Croft-Cooke, for example, vigorously denounces the attribution, noting that ‘the style is totally foreign to Wilde's way of thinking or writing. Nothing in the whole novel has, or could have, the slightest suggestion of Wilde's talent in it.’ Winston Leyland, however, claims that ‘internal evidence certainly points to Wilde's involvement in the novel as either principal author or chief collaborator/instigator.’ He imagines a time when the issue will be decided by ‘advanced computers’ that can compare ‘the syntax, vocabulary, and style’ of Teleny to ‘all of Wilde's known prose fiction.’3 Modern editions regularly feature photographs of Wilde on their dust jackets and include introductions by critics supporting Wilde's authorship as a means of offsetting the fact that the text is only ‘attributed’ to him.4


Such attempts to return the novel to the monological authority of a single, identifiable personage whose ‘genius’ would somehow legitimize its otherwise marginal status as ‘literature,’ or to protect that selfsame ‘genius’ from the contaminating influences of the paraliterary, have much the same result. As opposed as they may seem, such approaches foreclose upon the more radical implications of the novel's authorship. Wayne Koestenbaum has argued that all forms of male coauthorship are in some way or other homoerotic. ‘When two men write together, they indulge in double talk; they rapidly patter to obscure their erotic burden, but the ambiguities of their discourse give the taboo subject some liberty to roam.’ While effectively drawing out the ways in which the ‘taboo’ of same-sex desire necessarily informs male-male collaboration, Koestenbaum nonetheless leaves intact the priority of the couple, offering an image of collaboration in which the libidinal charge exists only sub rosa as a kind of displacement of the heterosexual dynamic.5 However, the multiple authorship and overtly pornographic form of Teleny allows its authors to engage in something other than ‘double talk’; the kind of collaboration that occurs among several men need not be produced solely through the often guilt-ridden erotics of disavowal and sublimation. Pornography, in this sense, is a kind of discursive license to address same-sex desire, providing not simply a vocabulary but an imaginative space in which to undertake this collective endeavor.


In what follows our concern is with the irreducible anonymity and multiplicity of what Hirsch recollects as that ‘extraordinary mixture of different handwriting, erasures, interlineations, corrections, and additions obviously made by various hands.’ The text is unusually heterogeneous in its style and content, with witty—even Wildean—epigrams and phrases sharing company with the most melodramatic of dialogue, and overtly homosexual scenarios abruptly spliced with long episodes of heterosexual coupling—the latter often betraying a deeply misogynistic and violent streak wholly at odds with the tenderness and jubilation of the scenes concerning its principle characters. Teleny's heteroglossia stands in marked contrast to the individuating tendencies of the ‘official’ discourses concerning both homosexuality and authorship in the late-Victorian period. At the very time that medicine and the law were producing the ‘homosexual’ as a specific object of scrutiny and regulation, the author was being constructed through the extension and formalization of copyright as the sole and unique origin of a text. Although copyright protection had been introduced in England as early as the 1710 Statute of Anne, authors continued to find their works pirated and their rights violated by mercenary publishers well into the 1880s, when the royalty system—under which an author receives a percentage of the published price of every book sold rather than selling the manuscript for an initial sum—became the norm. As Anne Ruggles Gere has pointed out, ‘The conflation of aesthetic and economic/legal arguments created a context in which copyright laws protecting authors became commonplace and the 'man-and-his work' view of texts could emerge.’6 Teleny frustrates the ‘man-and-his-work’ paradigm by offering an image of a queer writing practice characterized by fluidity, circulation, and exchange. This valorization of an ‘uninterrupted circuit’ between men offers an alternative not only to models of the author as individual ‘genius’ but to theories of collaborative writing largely modeled on the sexual dynamics of the heterosexual couple. At the same time, however, Teleny acknowledges the limits of such an alternative. As its pattern of productive misidentifications gives way to the need to provide narrative closure, the text reveals the difficulty of imagining a textuality and sexuality outside the terms of the heterosexual norm, suggesting that such difficulty is the very condition of queer authorship.


Coined by the Swiss physician Karoly Benkert in 1869, the term ‘homosexual,’ like its counterpart ‘heterosexual,’ first entered the English language through translations of Richard von Krafft-Ebing's epochal Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) in the early 1890s. Indeed, the two terms are reciprocal, each requiring the other in order to secure its difference from the other in the emergent medical discourse of sexology. The result was not simply the description of a particular sexual aberration but the production of a fully developed personality type that might serve as the necessary counterpart to the normative male subject. As Michel Foucault has argued, in the nineteenth century ‘the homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. . . . The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.’7 What had previously been simply an act—sodomy—that anyone might conceivably commit now enters into the very marrow of the individual, redefining the subject's sense of selfhood such that it emerges as little more than a metonym of the act. Same-sex desire is read retroactively into the whole history of the individual, lying at the root of his every deviation from the norm and thus condemning him to the abnormal, exiling him to the twilight world of the criminal, the pathological, the diseased, and the insane—and, in so doing, protecting the moral ‘purity’ of the heterosexual as the right and proper subject of the polis.


With its copious ‘case studies’ that recorded the upbringing, education, and sexual proclivities of a series of ‘representative’ subjects, Krafft-Ebing's work helped secure the homosexual within the terms of bourgeois individualism, that discursive construct which presented the subject as a unified, self-intending, self-knowing site of ontological wholeness. The otherwise obscure meanings of the Labouchre Amendment to the Criminal Law Act of 1885, which criminalized ‘any acts of gross indecency’ between two men, whether in private or public, were effectively glossed by this burgeoning discourse on the ‘antipathetic instinct.’ With more than one thousand works published on the topic between 1890 and 1908,8 the formerly vague outlines of the ‘moral degenerate’ were increasingly filled in. It is against the backdrop of this enormous effort to fix the enigma of the sexual invert, this manifest need to force the homosexual to speak the secrets of his ‘true’ sexuality, that one should read the communal authorship of a queer text such as Teleny. In its various tracings of ‘the uninterrupted current’ that forms its governing conceit, one hears not so much the articulation of a genuine or authentic ‘queer voice’ as one senses the physical effort on the part of its ‘various hands’ to resist any such violent acts of naming.9


Teleny tells the story of Camille Des Grieux and his passionate affair with the Hungarian pianist René Teleny. The ‘Physiological Romance’ is set in London, where the two young men first meet at a charity ball.10 Sitting in the audience during Teleny's performance, Des Grieux is startled by visions of ‘Alhambra in all the luxuriant loveliness of its Moorish masonry’ and ‘the sun-lit sands of Egypt,’ where Adrian bewailed the loss of his servant boy Antinous.11 He is, in effect, driven out of the West, out of rationality, and out of heterosexuality: ‘I longed to feel that mighty love which maddens one to crime, to feel the blasting lust of men who live beneath the scorching sun, to drink down deep from the cup of some satyrion philtre’ (26). As Edward Said and others have shown, it is conventional within Western writing to imagine the East as an arena for sexual experimentation.12 However, for queer writers the East is less a place on the map than it is a kind of virtual space in which they can imagine a sexuality beyond that prescribed within the normative confines of the domestic realist novel. It is only in the realm of orientalist fantasy that Des Grieux and Teleny can acquire a language in which they might recognize one another. When the two meet after the performance, Des Grieux discovers that they experienced the same vision; in that instant the two are enjoined in a circuit of mutual desire that effaces the distinction between their separate consciousnesses and exposes each to a fluid exchange of identities. Reflecting on the moment at which their eyes first met, the pianist tells his lover, ‘[T]here was a current between us, like a spark of electricity running along a wire, was it not?’ To which Des Grieux replies, ‘Yes, an uninterrupted current’ (36).


Drawn from the still mysterious and even exotic language of electrification, the ‘uninterrupted current’ becomes a trope by means of which the novel signifies the productive passing of desire from one individual to another in the text, as well as the promiscuity of identifications and liaisons that characterize its narrative development. Des Grieux tells his firsthand account of his relationship with Teleny to an unnamed transcriber/interlocutor whose presence in the text restlessly pushes the act of exchange between men to the fore. ‘Tell me your story from its very beginning,’ the narrator instructs Des Grieux. In so doing the narrator constructs a scenario in which the very form of the novel, as a dialogue between men, also serves as a model for its communal or collective authorship (23). In his descriptions of sex with Teleny, Des Grieux uses the transcriber's own body to illustrate his story, re-situating both the narrator and the reader in a more intimate relation with the tale through the familiar pronoun ‘you’: ‘He was sitting by my side, as close to me as I am now to you; his shoulder was leaning on my shoulder, exactly as yours is. First he passed his hand on mine, but so gently that I could hardly feel it; then slowly his fingers began to lock themselves within mine, just like this; for he seemed to delight in taking possession of me inch by inch’ (125–26).


The passage is one of several in which the reader is made aware that the transcriber and Des Grieux are on intimate terms, that this story is but the verbal complement to a physical act of seduction, the one extending the other such that words and limbs become entwined. Near the beginning of the text, for example, Camille is discussing his own penis, ‘which, as you know,’ he says to the transcriber, ‘is a good-sized one’ (39). He later says to the transcriber, ‘[A]s for my penis, or yours, its bulky head—but you blush at the compliment, so we will drop this subject’ (65). The use of the second-person pronoun in the passage allows the point of reference to slip from the transcriber to the reader, effectively blurring the distinction between that which is properly ‘intratextual’ and that which is ‘extratextual:’ Des Grieux's story pushes the affective work of sexual desire beyond the bounds of the narrative itself. The community by and for which the text was written is thus inscribed in the text: the body of the male reader becomes another point of relay through which this uninterrupted current runs.


Exploding the boundaries of the ‘book’ as a kind of self-contained artefact, Teleny depicts a world in which the circulation of stories is commensurate with that of bodies. This is the world of gossip, in which it is precisely those stories beyond the bounds of ‘propriety’ that become the most important. Through the transcriber's interventions, we know that ‘like everyone else [he] had heard at this time of the tragic death of [Teleny], who had committed suicide without anyone knowing the real reason, and about which very scandalous gossip was circulating’ (21). In the process of telling his tale, Des Grieux informs us that he and Teleny had become so close that there was, through gossip, a public recognition of their love, where ‘[their] friendship had almost become proverbial, and 'No René without Camille' had become a kind of by-word . . . . [He believes] the ladies now had  begun to suspect that [their] excessive friendship was of too loving a nature; and as [he had] heard since, [they] had been nicknamed the angels of Sodom’ (147). Such instances could be multiplied, but their significance lies in the fact that gossip is a paraliterary discourse, and that, like the orientalist fantasies that Des Grieux and Teleny share, it occupies a place outside the denotative function of official or rational discourse. As Patricia Meyer Spacks has noted, gossip's allure is intimately related to that of pornography: ‘[E]ven when it avoids the sexual, [it] bears about it a faint flavour of the erotic. (Of course, sexual activities and emotions supply the most familiar staple of gossip—as of the Western realistic novel.) The atmosphere of erotic titillation suggests gossip's implicit voyeurism.’13 Far from being vilified as a debased mode of knowing, gossip is privileged by Teleny. It is not only a ‘shared secret,’ a token that establishes one's membership within a community of knowing, but the specific means by which a community of sexual dissidents can come into being. As Neil Bartlett has written, ‘[Teleny] seems to relate our story, in our language, because it seems that this text—hidden for so long and part of our dark, private world, speaking a pornographic language which seems hardly to have changed at all—this texts speaks of how close to history I am, of how we created our own lives and own desires even then.’14 Shifting between the first-person-singular pronoun and the plural, even as the novel’s framing narrative shifts between the first person and the second, Bartlett emphasizes the indeterminancies of the queer subject and its emergence in a language that is ‘unauthorised.;’ It is not only the uncanny familiarity of the language of homoerotic desire that makes the novel seem recognizably queer but the very fact that such language is strictly speaking, not of history at all. It is, rather, only dangerously close to history and always living in the shadow of its possible exposure to history.


In Teleny gossip, scandal, and innuendo both register the social and legal vulnerability of the queer community of the fin de siècle, and are the linguistic means by which that community comes into being. Des Grieux receives a blackmail letter threatening to expose him as a sodomite if he does not give up Teleny as a lover. The letter is one of the few instances in which the text explicitly acknowledges the legal consequences of homosexuality following the passing of the Labouchère Amendment. Often referred to as the ‘Blackmailer's Charter,’15 the amendment had the immediate result of putting any man (as Wilde would soon discover) at risk from any insinuation of having committed sodomy. Language, in the form of the threatening letter, thus acquired a new valency, as that which entailed the possibility not simply of public disgrace but of juridical punishment. The blackmailer's letter in Teleny, however, serves quite another purpose. Rather than disabling Des Grieux's emergent sense of himself as a member of the ‘Priapean creed’ (131), it amounts to a veritable ticket of admission to the club of the ‘blackmailable ‘ homosexuality, in part, comes to be identified by the very fact of its vulnerability to exposure by the agency of the letter. Teleny discovers that the blackmailer is a mutual friend who is jealous of the ease by which Des Grieux has won the pianist's favors. When they confront the man, Bryancourt, the differences between them dissolve once they recognize their mutual associations and desires—he having written the letter only out of jealousy. ‘I bear you no grudge, ‘ says Bryancourt, ‘nor do you for that stupid threat of mine, I'm sure’ (130). To make amends, he invites the couple to a soirée, where they will meet ‘a lot of pleasant fellows who'll be delighted to make your acquaintance, and many of whom have long been astonished that you are not one of us’ (130). Des Grieux enters into the queer community through the threat of blackmail, which functions as a kind of initiation rite, one of the rewards of which is the spectacle of the grand orgy that marks the culmination of his queer becoming.


The ‘symposium’ to which Bryancourt invites Des Grieux and Teleny recapitulates the orientalism of their initial encounter (130). ‘[O]n soft Persian and Syrian divans,’ Des Grieux tells the transcriber, ‘men, young and good-looking, almost all naked, were lounging there by twos and threes, grouped in attitudes of the most consummate lewdness such as . . . are only seen in the brothels of men in lecherous Spain, or in those of the wanton East’ (132). In this notably orientalized space, individuals are recast much as the East is, as depthless surfaces enjoined in the collective task of mutual pleasure. Looking down on the scene for the first time, Des Grieux describes a wild profusion of entwined limbs, orifices, and organs that recalls nothing so much as the heteroglossia of the text itself: ‘All the couples were cleaving together, kissing each other, rubbing their naked bodies the one against the other, trying what new excess their lechery could devise’ (140). ‘It was,’ Des Grieux concludes, ‘like an electric shock amongst us all. 'They enjoy, they enjoy!' was the cry, uttered from every lip’ (140). Queer sexuality is thus identified not with the heterosexual couple but with the group, with a kind of excess that ceaselessly spills over the category of the self and spreads out to the many. As Ed Cohen has written, ‘In affirming the naturalness of Des Grieux's homoerotic experience, this new joyous possibility undermines the monovocalizing strategies the bourgeois heterosexual culture used to ensure the reproduction of its dominance and thus opens the possibility of representing a plurality of male sexualities.’16 Such revelry, in other words, is not simply an affirmation of the burgeoning queer subculture of the nineties. Its emphasis on multiplicity and exchange seeks to subvert the construction of the ‘homosexual’ as singular and identifiable and to replace the certainties of individuation with the pleasures of anonymity and collectivity.


Teleny's emphasis on a mobile and polymorphous sexuality is a function of its fascination with the prospect of a desire based on sameness. For example, in talking with Camille after their introduction, Teleny describes his ideal relationship as that between the artist and a ‘sympathetic listener,’ which he defines as ‘a person with whom a current seems to establish itself; someone who feels, while listening, exactly as [he does] whilst [he is] playing, who sees perhaps the same visions as [he does]’ (30). Echoes of the trope can be seen in the novel's fascinations with mirrors, shadows that merge, feelings of amalgamation or melting into one another, and in the recurrent fascination with doubles, as when Teleny speculates that Des Grieux may be his very own doppelgänger and hence one of them must die.17 The other which is the same, that founding figure in the ‘uninterrupted current’ that imagines Teleny and Des Grieux as both distinct and conjoined, distinguishes it from the forms of desire for the other that characterize the conventional oedipal romance. As Kaja Silverman has argued, ‘Identity and desire are so complexly imbricated that neither can be explained without recourse to the other.’18 Ontology, in other words, is always caught up in the ways in which the self figures the other to itself.


The relationship of identity and desire is further complicated when, as in this novel, the psychosexual architecture of selfhood is premised on an irreducible ambiguity between the subject's desire for the other and its desire to resemble the other. On the level of subject relations Camille has confusing identifications with those around him. Near the beginning of the text he has a dream in which, ‘for instance, it seemed to [him] that Teleny was not a man, but a woman; moreover, he was [his] own sister’ (37)—this despite the fact that in reality he has no sister. He then proceeds to make love to Teleny, who remains in female form, and he thereby commits incest. On another occasion Teleny takes home the countess and makes love to her while Des Grieux remains on the street and experiences the scene as if he were in the room. He somehow partakes not only of the feelings of the countess as she is penetrated but also those of Teleny as he penetrates her. Later in the text, when the transcriber asks Des Grieux if his mother had ‘any inkling of [his] love for [his] friend,’ he once again makes a confusing identification when he replies, ‘[Y]ou know the husband is always the last to suspect his wife's infidelity,’ thereby identifying his mother as a husband and himself as the wife who is being inconstant with Teleny (147).


This misidentification of those around him also extends to how Des Grieux describes himself and, in particular, parts of his body as they are constituted within the fluid forms of libidinal identity. For example, during the sequence in which he imagines making love to his imaginary sister, Des Grieux awakens to find an empty bed, exclaiming, ‘But, where was my sister, or the girl I had enjoyed? Moreover, was this stiff rod I was holding in my hand, mine or Teleny's?’ (39). This radical confusion of self, to the point where he cannot even recognize the phallus, that emblem of sexual identity par excellence, as either his own or his male partner's, is compounded by his later confusion of male and female body parts. When Des Grieux describes how he performs fellatio on Teleny, he says, ‘I drew [his penis] like a teat’ (111). Later he similarly describes the feeling of Teleny's penis penetrating him, claiming that he ‘felt it wriggling in its sheath like a baby in its mother's womb’ (155). Des Grieux thus infantilizes Teleny's penis, after having previously done so to himself, and turns his own rectum into a womb. Sexual identity is thus figured as mobile and arbitrary, drawing upon the available modalities of language to figure that which remains always just on the other side of history.


However, the joyous promiscuity entailed by Camille's capacity for misrecognition ultimately fails before the grounding influence exerted by the oedipal narrative, in which closure is achieved once the characters assume and correctly play out their roles within the normative family unit. The climax of the novel occurs when Des Grieux discovers that his mother and Teleny have been having an affair. Even here, however, Des Grieux at first fails to recognize the significance of the scene. Looking through the keyhole while Teleny makes love to some as yet unidentified woman, he admires the woman's body and almost decides to open the door and join in: ‘Still the sight of those two naked bodies clasped in such a thrilling embrace . . . overcame for a moment my excruciating jealousy, and I got to be excited to such an ungovernable pitch that I could hardly forbear from rushing into that room’ (167). He then comments: ‘Surely after such overpowering spasms, prolapsus and inflammation of the womb must ensue, but then what rapture she must give’ (167). The inflamed womb and the rapture he imagines she gives construct Des Grieux as a subject who speaks what he does not know. He wants to ‘burst [the door] and have [his] share in the feast, though in a humbler way, and like a beggar go in by the back entrance’ (168). In one sense, then, the mother's body is incorporated into the current that runs between the two men; it is, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, the point of resistance that makes the filament glow.


In not recognizing his mother as a ‘mother’ in the oedipal sense, that is to say, in apprehending her as only another body, and thus radically underdetermined with the gender economy of the fin de siècle, Des Grieux is able to actively participate in this scene. He experiences what they experience because they are as yet not individualized. The two people beyond the keyhole are not subjects proper but simply surfaces across which desire runs. But when Des Grieux hears his mother's voice and recognizes it as that of his mother, he bursts through the door and confronts the couple as both jilted lover and betrayed son. The scene that, only moments earlier, bore witness to an undifferentiated free play of libidinal energy is suddenly overcoded in the terms of bourgeois domestic drama, complete with all the fixed points of identity that stake out the stability of the oedipal family. Des Grieux becomes a textbook example of the son whose incestuous desires for the mother awaken a murderous rage for the father (or, in this case, his stand-in, the mother's lover) and whose failure to sublimate such attachments (as Freud would argue only a few years later) results in the antipathetic vice of homosexuality. It is not the scheming machinations of Des Grieux's mother or the financial greed of Teleny (who has only agreed to this tryst for monetary reasons) that finally grounds the homoerotic ideal of an uninterrupted current but rather Des Grieux's interpretation of the scene before him. Only when he attributes to these bodies in motion a recognizable subjecthood—thereby placing them within the normative terms of history—is the erotic trajectory of the scene stopped short. Des Grieux's tragic mistake is not to have misread the signs he sees, as was the case for Oedipus, but rather to have read them all too correctly.


The novel's conclusion vacillates between a need to know ‘the truth’ of Teleny's betrayal and the ways in which such ‘truth’ always remains beyond the grasp of the text. Des Grieux flees from the scene between his mother and his lover and, quite literally beside himself with despair, ends up in a hospital.19 Upon his release three days later, he learns from his business manager that his mother has fled the country. Still concerned for the fate of his erstwhile lover, he confesses that he ‘could not bear this state of things any longer. Truth, however painful, was preferable to this dreadful suspense’ (172). It is the search for this truth that leads him back to Teleny's house, where he finds the door open just as he left it days before. There he discovers something that ‘freezes the very marrow in [his] bones’—the body of his lover with a knife in its chest (172). Teleny revives for a brief moment, yet his dying words offer Des Grieux the ‘truth’ that he seeks while at the same time complicating its meaning. ‘I felt racked at not being able to understand a single word of what he wanted to say. After several fruitless attempts I managed to make out—'Forgive!'‘ (173). The truth Des Grieux uncovers is thus highly ambiguous, as much a plea to be forgiven as a granting of absolution. Though Teleny may wish to be forgiven for having betrayed his lover, Des Grieux must also be absolved for interrupting the current that ran between and beyond their dyadic coupling.


* * *

‘Books,’ Foucault writes, ‘were assigned real authors, other than mythical or important religious figures, only when the author became subject to punishment and to the extent to which his discourse was considered transgressive.’ That is to say, the ability of literature to transgress the ideological norms of a society is closely tied to the juridical means by which the author, in gaining ownership of his or her text, became an individual, a proper name that signs and secures the meanings of the texts that appear under that name. Copyright thus entailed not simply a legal responsibility but the very possibility of interrogating the function of naming as such. ‘It is as if the author, at the moment he was accepted into the social order of property which governs our culture, was compensating for his new status by . . . restoring the danger of writing which, on another side, had been conferred the benefits of property.’20 In refusing to ‘name’ its author, Teleny couples its collaborative authorship with its refusal to name as such. It seeks not a perfect or ideal queer identity, some model of sexuality or authorship to which others might aspire, but rather to question and subvert the very ‘responsibilities’—whether artistic, legal, or medical—that such an ideal would entail.21


The irony of the novel's publication history is that it has enacted the very forms of power over the text that the text itself most insistently calls into question. Marketing the novel as ‘by’ Oscar Wilde or ‘attributed to’ Oscar Wilde is to affix its polyvalence, its many voices and multiple desires, to the name of single ‘author’ and, in so doing, foreclose on its being read as an interrogation of individuation as such. The serial mode of composition, in which the manuscript passes, by way of an intermediary, from one hand to another, is one that acknowledges that any text is, in the words of Derrida, a ‘differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces.’22 It is, in short, to understand textuality as another form of the sexuality that the novel pursues, the ‘uninterrupted current’ that passes from and through the self, connecting the body of the text, no less than that of the author, to a network of intentions and desires that are not its own but always of the other. To read Teleny, as we have attempted, as a kind of gossip—replete with necessary misrecognitions, misalliances, and misreadings—is to see the novel precisely as such a ‘differential network’ that points always to ‘something other than itself.’ In the end, even Teleny's death does not halt the ceaseless production and dissemination of the collective story that is queer sexuality. The clergyman who presides over the pianist's funeral foretells that ‘his remembrance shall perish from the earth, and he shall have no name in the street’ (175). But it is precisely ‘in the street’ that Teleny's story is remembered. As Des Grieux notes, ‘In the meanwhile, [our] story, in veiled words, had appeared in every newspaper. It was too dainty a bit of gossip not to spread about at once like wildfire (174). The very illegitimacy of gossip, in effect, ensures the survival of that which cannot be recognized from the pulpit.   


With its rumored origins and scandalous narrative, Teleny, like the story it tells, has survived not so much ‘in’ literary history as on its margins, a visible rem(a)inder of the ways in which queer writers contested the discursive means of naming the ‘proper’ and securing the place of the ‘author.’ That it ultimately dramatizes the failure of its ‘network of traces’ does not diminish its attempt to figure homoerotic relations between men in terms other than those of bourgeois individualism. Rather, it should be seen as part of a collective awareness of the difficulty of escaping such terms—both the key to becoming ‘speaking subjects’ with the same rights as any other and the means by which power would extend itself throughout the body politic. To refuse ‘identity’ would simply be to abandon oneself to its dictates. Yet to adopt its rights and privileges, as Foucault says of the author, is also to accept the obligation to transgress them, to find a means by which the multiplicity of voices and desires might yet be represented within the promiscuity of words and bodies.


·         This article was first published in Literary Couplings and the Construction of Authorship: Writing Couples and Collaborators in Historical Context, eds. Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006, pp. 193-208.



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1 Bartlett, Who Was That Man? A Present for Oscar Wilde, 83; Leyland, introduction to Teleny [attrib. Oscar Wilde], 5; quoted in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, ed. Beckson, 72. See ‘Works Cited’ for complete bibliographical information on sources mentioned in the notes.

2 Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: A Biography, 238.

3 Croft-Cooke, The Unrecorded Life of Oscar Wilde, 27; Leyland, ‘Introduction,’ 11, 14, resp.

4 The debate over the provenance of Teleny was taken up with renewed intensity in the pages of Forum Homosexualität und Literatur. See Setz, ‘Zur Textgestalt des Teleny’; Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg, ‘Teleny: Zu einem apokryphen Roman Oscar Wildes.’

5 Koestenbaum, Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration, 3; The assumed priority of the heterosexual dyad in Koestenbaum's discussion of male collaborative writing is implicit not only in his focus on couples but in his belief that the text they produce is the product of such a union, much like a child. He claims that ‘men who collaborate engage in a metaphorical sexual intercourse, and that the text they balance between them is alternately the child of their sexual union and a shared woman.’

6 Gere, ‘Common Properties of Pleasure: Texts in Nineteenth-Century Women's Clubs,’ 383. On the introduction of the royalty system and its effect on the relationship between authors and publishers, see Keating, The Haunted Study: A Social History of the Novel, 1875–1914, 9–87;

7 Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume One: An Introduction, 43.

8 On this point see Pearsall, The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality, 448.

9 On the criminalization of homosexuality, see Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present; Hyde, The Love that Dared Not Speak its Name; Cohen, Talk on the Wilde Side: Toward a Genealogy of a Discourse on Male Sexualities; and Craft, Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850–1920.

10 For the edition he published in 1893, Leonard Smithers changed the locale to Paris. Charles Hirsch issued a French edition in 1934 and, based on his knowledge of the original manuscript, changed the setting back to London. The Gay Sunshine Press edition from which we cite retains this latter change.

11 Teleny, attributed to Oscar Wilde, 26. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

12 On orientalism and sexuality, see Said, Orientalism; Garber, ‘Chic of Araby,’ in Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety; and R. Lewis, Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity and Representation.

13 Spacks, Gossip, 11.

14 Bartlett, Who Was That Man?, 83

15 Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Sicle, 112

16 Cohen,’ Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation,’ 805.

17 See Teleny, 40, 160, 66, 170, 102, 125.

18 Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins, 6

19 In a remarkable scene that extends the doppelgänger motif, while fleeing from Teleny and his mother, Des Grieux runs into someone on the street and encounters ‘[his] own image. A man exactly like [himself]—[his] Doppelgänger, in fact’ (169–70). It is this man, this reflection, who saves Des Grieux when he jumps in the river and then transports him to a hospital. This passage was excised from the 1934 French edition.

20 Foucault, ‘What Is an Author?,’ 124, 125.

21 At a time when the concept of the author and the regulation of copyright were being consolidated, Teleny frustrated those regulations, for ‘no copyright can exist in a work produced as a true collective enterprise rather than by one or more identifiable or anonymous 'authors.'‘ See Jaszi, ‘On the Author Effect: Contemporary Copyright and Collective Creativity,’ 11.

22 Derrida, ‘Living On: Border Lines,’ 84.




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