THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




A Dictionary of 19th-Century Pornography: Teleny, Language, and Melancholy at the Fin de Siècle


Deborah Lutz


Of all the single-subject dictionaries of disappearing words and languages that should be compiled—lexicons that seek to maintain a collection of terms that mean more when kept together, like old photo albums whose individual pictures lose much of their worth when the whole is broken up—an inventory of terms from 19th-century British pornography (or of any era or nationality) would have an interesting oddity about it: words meant to describe intense bodily moments pulled out of context and placed in a scholarly list.  Like John Stilgoe’s Shallow Water Dictionary, which documents vanishing terms used to describe particular types of waterways (themselves endangered), such a volume would be filled primarily by words that more commonly mean something else (for example, ‘to spend’ which in this dictionary would mean to have an orgasm).  Therefore, it’s not the words themselves that are disappearing, but rather the definition, or the terms steeped in their atmosphere.  It’s no surprise that 19th-century pornographic language is parasitic: that it comes recycled from other milieus.  The language of pornography, at its purest, functions merely as a transparent screen through which the reader feels erotic sensation.  Opaque words, whose density stops the reader to puzzle over their meaning (the rich language of poetry for instance), drag down the speed pornography generally requires for its readers: the reading has a direct goal that has everything to do with the body and little to do with literary form and style.  To pull the terms out of their highly determined function turns them into strange artifacts, no longer transparent and use-oriented but now things to be analyzed for their own sake.

Teleny or The Reverse of the Medal works as a good stopover on such a collecting itinerary.  This is not so much because of its homosexuality (depictions of male-male sex and sodomy are common in many classics of Victorian pornography, such as The Romance of Lust, My Secret Life, and stories running in the serials The Pearl and The Cremorne) but rather because of its status as a mosaic of genres and literary styles (attributable, perhaps, to its being written by numerous hands, although 19th-century pornography often has a patch-work quality to it) and because language itself is one of its explicit themes.  Teleny exemplifies well the dual nature of the language of pornography because it often has the transparency of garden-variety porn but it, at times, seeks the complexity of a literary work, causing those reading purely for its erotic value to stop and puzzle.  It is both smut and a work of art (what we would call, in the 20th-century with the dawn of Modernism, erotica). Thus it sometimes adds its own terms to the usual compilation of 19th-century pornographic language, words that seem to have more depth and richness, but with a residue of their use value as a means to ‘get off’ still clinging to them.

Not only would a lexicographer want to use Teleny in compiling her glossary, she need not do any excerpting in order to find it useful as another type of reference text.  Teleny immediately comes to hand as a sampling of popular 19th-century fictional styles or themes, an anthology of historical examples for the 20th- and 21st-century reader.  A partial list of stereotypical elements reworked in Teleny: the Byronically tormented genius/artist (the character of René Teleny himself has these qualities—the mysterious past, the magnetism that comes from his outsider status, and the doomed fate from the beginning); a Gothic eroticism (Teleny and Camille Des Grieux are uncanny doppelgängers whose love leads to telepathic, galvanic communications); liebestod (the love between the two is consistently intertwined with death and leads inexorably to it); a Wildean Aestheticism imbued with postcolonial materiality (a glorying in ephemeral beauty, the experience of the senses, and refined, exotic interiors);  and sadomasochism (the sexual encounters between the main characters are exquisitely painful).  The genius of Teleny is in the way it foregrounds the pornographic elements that already lurked in these conventional formulas, making obvious the fact that a key to their popularity was always their eroticism. As such, Teleny at times strikes the reader conversant with the 19th-century canon as a kind of parody of its serious themes, a burlesque of writing by the likes of Dickens, Eliot, the Brontës, Swinburne, D.G. Rossetti, and Wilde (perhaps a self-parody, since it’s speculated Wilde had a hand in producing sections of Teleny). 

But not only does Teleny play an important role as a commentary on 19th-century literary history in its final days, but it also looks forward clearly to Modernism, as do, of course, all Aesthetic texts.  And this point takes us back to the language of Teleny, and its status as a resource for the lexicographer.  Like much Modernist writing, Teleny has a self-awareness of the frailty of language in expressing experience.  In a move Virginia Woolf would soon perfect, Teleny takes up the theme of words themselves as a medium: for art, sexuality, and communication between lovers.  What results is an occasional unease with language, an unsettling quality at odds with the project of pornography.  This difficulty in expressing meaning is to be found most clearly in the descriptions of orgasms: those passages that are both the raison d’être of pornography and the point when it often fails, gesturing to the near impossibility of conveying in words the visceral moment when being becomes all sensation.

In a discussion (or a dictionary) of the language of pornography, words for the orgasm would necessarily have a prominent place. As has been recognized by scholars in the past (for example, see the analysis of ‘to spend’ in Freud and Post-Freudians), cultural meaning pools around these terms.  Teleny has many of the common descriptions to be found in run-of-the-mill pornography: a female prostitute has an ‘ejaculation’ (42); a man has ‘squirt his sperm’ (46) into his wife; ‘The milky fluid that had for days accumulated itself now rushed out in thick jets’ (51); when Des Grieux attempts intercourse with a servant girl, he ‘squirted her all over with my creamy, life-giving fluid’ (66).  But most of the passages depicting orgasms are far more compelling: unusual in their poetic layering and in their attempt to convey not just the moment of ejaculation but something more essential, philosophical even.  These sections for the most part cluster around Des Grieux and Teleny (not surprisingly) and their love for one another. From the first chapter, when Camille first sees Teleny perform and before they have even met, the ejaculatory sensations take on a dark tinge. As Teleny produces an ‘entrancing’ music on the piano, his consciousness seems to invade Camille’s from across the room, and Camille’s imagination and body helplessly react.            

My blood began to boil like a burning fluid, so that I felt my (what the Italians call a ‘birdie,’ and what they have portrayed as a winged cherub) struggle within its prison, lift up its head, open its tiny lips, and again spout one or two drops of that creamy, life-giving fluid . . . But those few tears—far from being a soothing balm—seemed to be drops of caustic, burning me, and producing a strong, unbearable irritation. (19)

Their eroticism has occult, Gothic overtones.  Sexuality can harm in its intensity, in its otherworldly mysticism: sperm is a ‘burning liquid’ (52) and can come as ‘a jet of caustic fire’ (109). The first time Teleny sodomizes De Grieux, Teleny’s orgasm is ‘a most violent jet, like a hot geyser,’ and he exclaims that it ‘coursed within me like some scorching, corroding poison’ (97).  But at the same time it’s a magical, life-giving fluid, with mesmeric, galvanic, or alchemical properties (reference is even made to the ‘doings of the Psychical Society’ [53]): Teleny’s sperm is ‘the fiery foaming sap of his body, the real elixir of life’ (92), Des Grieux’s ‘the burning milk of life’ that mounted up ‘like a sap of fire’ (91). Built carefully into the climactic scenes is the attestation that sex and love disturb, trouble, are dangerous forces somehow inexorably unavoidable.

Added to the sense of pressing doom that comes with many of the orgasms in the text, there is an attentiveness to words and their definitions. In the long passage quoted above, the author(s) displays a hesitancy in naming forthrightly the penis and instead gives a brief, almost scholarly, disquisition on the Italian slang.  Having nothing to do with prudishness (as the explicitness of the later narrative proves), this reference to the penis is something of a hall of mirrors.  It’s a ‘birdie’ and a ‘winged cherub,’ but then it’s also imprisoned, has lips that drool, and is personified such that it weeps sad tears.  All of these terms are a bit different, creating a kind of prism effect of meaning.  None of them add up to a coherent sense of what is being named—a trapped bird?  An instrument of love?  A doomed soul? The proliferation of meaning is a deliberate wordplay that implies, with levity (perhaps even a purposeful silliness), not only that the body (here represented by the penis) has multiple sensations and modes that require numerous metaphors, but quite possibly that language—even more than one (English, Italian, and in other passages, French)—is not adequate to convey its true nature.  This is a common theme throughout the text: casting about for words becomes a way to express sexual congress (other examples: ‘his merle—as the Italians call it—flying out of his cage’ [52], ‘hooding their falcon with a ‘French letter’’ [46]).   Almost a stutter of scare quotes, of m-dashed phrases, chop up the flow of the sentence when the orgasm or erection enters the story, often as a character itself. 

The sorrow, the unease with the efficacy of words, the pre-confirmed liebestod, reach their pinnacle when Teleny and Des Grieux have their first sexual encounter.  For Des Grieux, Teleny has ‘a supple, mesmeric, pleasure-giving fluid in his fingers.’  Camille’s orgasm begins with ‘an intense pain, somewhere about the root of the penis . . .’

—or, rather, within the very core and centre of the reins—after which the sap of life began to move slowly, slowly, from within the seminal glands . . . like the scalding and scathing lava within the crater of a volcano.  It finally reached the apex; then the slit gaped, the tiny lips parted, and the pearly creamy viscous fluid oozed out . . . in huge, burning tears. . . At every drop that escaped out of the body, a creepy almost unbearable feeling started from the tips of the fingers, from the ends of the toes, especially from the innermost cells of the brain; the marrow in the spine and within all the bones seemed to melt; and when the different currents—either coursing with the blood or running rapidly up the nervous fibres—met within the phallus . . . a tremendous shock took place; a convulsion which annihilated both mind and matter . . . (88)

More than an orgasm, this scene feels like a death (and not a petite one)—’the sap of life’ oozing out like blood, the sense that the body is being drained from the ‘tips of the fingers’ to the ‘marrow in the spine and within all the bones.’ The ‘creepy, almost unbearable feeling’ speaks to Camille of more than just sexual pleasure, or the love (obsession) between two people.  The annihilation of ‘both mind and matter’ seems to reach his very soul, uncovering some mystery of life in the ‘tremendous shock’ of the cataclysmic meeting. 

What is this mystery? Teleny succeeds in being that rare thing: a piece of melancholy pornography.  The sophisticated sadness, the near despair that comes when one is faced with joys such as love and lust, speak of the world-weariness of the fin de siècle, of Aestheticism’s graceful acceptance of the fleetingness of all living things.  Pater’s influence is seen here: ‘Every moment some form grows perfect . . . some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us—for that moment only.  Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end’ (249).  The orgasms in Teleny are recognitions that when joys come, they foreground the mortality at the back of all experience.  Part of this mortality is the death-like shock that comes when Des Grieux feels he has achieved unity with Teleny—that he has finally truly known this loved one—only to discover that, to his despair, he can never know Teleny (proven when Teleny sleeps with Des Grieux’s mother and then commits suicide).  The orgasms the two lovers experience together seem to bring them true communion; their sexuality like a language, they appear to be fully understanding each other, for once.  But it is in the orgasm—that moment when oneness and transparency appear most confirmed—that the despair of communion ever being possible creeps in, bringing with it a whiff of death.  This is the mystery that gathers around the ejaculations in Teleny.  Thus when one orgasms, what comes out is usually called ‘tears.’ And to ready a penis for sex is to ‘let it out of its dim dungeon, to drive it into the dark den’ (68). In the lover’s orifice, the penis remains a ‘prisoner lodged in its narrow cage’ (72). And ‘such a kiss follows you to the grave’ (87).

Teleny prefigures the Modernist rendering of language as a kind of muddy veil, covering truth rather than sharing it. The orgasms in Teleny work perfectly as a means to convey the loneliness of modernity.  They are almost endlessly repeated because they seem to succeed, but then they must be repeated because they never quite do so.  What appears to be the coming together of two souls only proves the inevitable—that unity is impossible. Teleny gestures toward the idea, to be taken up more completely by 20th-century writers like D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, that the language of sexuality approaches a state of non-representability, constituting a kind of pure art that doesn’t point to anything outside of itself.  As such, the orgasm is something like music, and thus, in Pater’s famous formulation, becomes itself an art, silent or noisy.


Anonymous. Teleny or The Reverse of the Medal. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth, 1995.

Pater, Walter.  The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. New York: Macmillan, 1899.



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