THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue





excess of love and social constraints in Inferno, Othello, and Teleny


John McRae


[…] come concedette Amore

che conosceste i dubbiosi disiri?


When Dante talks in Canto V of Inferno of those who ‘la ragion sommettono al talento’ (line 39), the reference is to Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, lovers condemned to run forever among the carnal sinners, those whose passion has gone out of control. Paolo and Francesca are punished, in earthly terms, by death, and eternally by being condemned to run among the sinners in Hell. Foscolo insisted that in the case of Paolo and Francesca ‘la colpa è purificata dall’ardore della passione, e la verecondia abbellisce la confessione della libidine.’1 Sin, punishment, and great passion are mixed inextricably here. Dante takes care to compare their love with great literary precedents, the most notable being the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, in order to stress the importance of the real love in this story, and of the intensity of the passion, the impossibility of repentance, and the consequent damnation of the lovers.

Paolo and Francesca’s ‘dubbiosi disiri’, interpreted by Boccaccio as the doubts and uncertainties of the two lovers, are recalled in Teleny. The episode from Dante is referred to in the novel as an example of social constraints condemning true love to perdition. I want to examine how Wilde uses reference to Dante to give credence to the triumphant nature of the homosexual relationship Teleny describes, and to relate the story of love’s excess to perhaps the most famous case of ‘one who loved not wisely but too well’, Othello, in the Shakespearean tragedy which bears his name.

Paolo and Francesca broke the rules of their society in that she was already married, for political reasons, to Gianciotto, Paolo’s brother, when she fell in love with Paolo. Gianciotto’s vengeance came upon them so suddenly that it denied them, any possibility of repentance – the punishment for this excess, this contravention of social and political laws, was death.

Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality affirms that ‘the exercise of power has always been formulated in terms of law’.2 In the Rimini of 1283-1285 this punishment might have been seen as a fairly traditional reaction to adultery, were it not for the kind of assertion of the positive power of passion that Foscolo and other commentators at various times have given to the episode, such that Paolo and Francesca have assumed a kind of mythical status, not unlike Romeo and Juliet, those other lovers whose passion went against the constraints of their society.3

If it were now to die

‘Twere now to be most happy


In Othello, the hero is an outsider from the very beginning. ‘Il Moro’ of Cinthio’s original story has been transformed into a negro, ‘the Moor of Venice’, who has, through his own efforts, won recognition from the state as a warrior. Part of his reward for his efforts is the virgin Desdemona, who falls in love with him as he recounts his heroic exploits. Othello, however, has to plead his case for their love in front of the Duke of Venice, and his plea is granted only when Desdemona herself confirms her love. (In the play, as in the Francesca da Rimini episode, it is noticeable that the female falls in love with the attractive male figure first – this too might be seen as in some way an overturning of the normal order.) The union of Othello and Desdemona can be seen as the impossible union of Beauty and the Beast, of Diana and Mars, a harmonic uniting of opposites, whose love goes against all the conventions of the society in which they live.

It is, however, finally sanctioned by that society, against the will of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, and of the devil-figure of the play, Iago, who, in describing the couple’s love-making to Brabantio (using a disguised voice), reduces it to the level of bestiality, ‘the beast with two backs’ (I i 116-117). It is Brabantio who is the first victim of this union which goes against the traditional and protective social order – he dies of a broken heart at his daughter’s marriage to an outsider. As soon as he heard of the relationship between his daughter and the Moor he considered her already dead, and the relationship unnatural: ‘For nature so preposterously to err’ (I iii 62) leads inevitably to death. That it does so in Brabantio’s own mind foreshadows the later tragic death of the lovers themselves. Gianciotto’s active condemning to death of Paolo and Francesca is every bit as rapid as Brabantio’s consideration of his daughter as dead when the ‘natural’ order of things has been overturned by the irrational expression of irresistible passion. Society allows Othello to keep Desdemona, not in approving recognition of his or her passion, but, as I have already suggested, as a kind of reward for services rendered: he both conquers her, and justifies his right to her, through what he has done for the state of Venice. He remains, however, the servant of the state, recognised as ‘valiant’, the perfect warrior’ – but he carries no honorific, nor is he welcomed into the ranks of the nobility of the state. He remains an outsider, an employee: ‘We must straight employ you, Against the general enemy Ottoman’ (I iii 48-49), says the Duke, in the same scene where Othello later justifies his ‘claim’ to Desdemona.

This would not, however, be the stuff of tragedy were it not for Othello’s inability to understand the mechanism of the society to which he has struggled to belong. He trusts Iago (‘honest Iago’) implicitly, and cannot see, as  the audience can, that he is being ‘led by the nose…. As asses are’ (I iii 399-400) towards the fatal outburst of jealousy. When the tragedy has reached its conclusion, Othello asks his listeners to speak of him as ‘one who loved not wisely, but too well, Of one not easily jealous, but when wrought, Perplexed in the extreme’ (V i 345-347).  In this, and in other crucial moments when self-knowledge is called for, Othello speaks not in the first but in the third person, as if distancing himself from the character he is speaking about. Not only does he not succeed in combining the necessary elements of the Renaissance man, (symbolised in Hamlet in the flower, the book, and the sword – passion, reason, and physical strength) but neither can he succeed in that most primary of requisites, ‘Know thyself.’

What limits Othello, in the society he has chosen to succeed in, is his inability to come to terms with the rules of that society – at the end he is still ‘the Moor’, not a true Venetian; no matter how well he has served the state (‘I have done the state some service’) he remains their servant rather than a true part of it. And Desdemona becomes the victim of her own excess of love, punished by death, through no actual fault of her own, because she married beyond the bounds prescribed by family, custom, and social order.

As with Paolo and Francesca, the love between Othello and Desdemona, the depth and truth of their passion, is not to be doubted. ‘Perdition catch my soul, But I do love thee, and when I love thee not, Chaos is come again’ (III iii 91-93), says Othello. Love is seen as a protection against chaos - but when it goes against the social order it brings about chaos, and leads to perdition. The level of social disapproval of the relationship between the lovers is profound, Othello’s own admission that he loved ‘not wisely but too well’ is, for that society, an admission of his guilt, and an acknowledgement that the society was right in its judgement: where reason is not in control, chaos will result. This affirmation of the power of reason, the necessity for reason to govern love, is a commonplace, but in this case perhaps surprisingly close to Dante’s line already quoted from Canto V of Inferno about ‘I peccatori carnali, che la ragion sommettono al talento.’ (‘Talento’ here is to be read as ‘appetitio’, ‘passione’, incontinence, rather than the sin of lust.)


The fact is that nowadays we have got to be so mealy-mouthed, so ever-nice,

 that Madam Eglantine, who ‘raught full seemly after her meat’ would be looked upon,

in spite of her stately manners, as something worse than a scullery-maid.


Foucault, in analysing the deployment of sexuality in nineteenth century society, asserts that ‘the task of truth was now linked to the challenging of taboos.’4 Oscar Wilde, in his life as much as in his works, challenged the assumptions, pretensions, and manners of the society of late Victorian England. ‘How I used to toy with that tiger Life’5 he was to write, after he became the most conspicuous victim of that society. It was a society, which he, not unlike Othello, aspired to belong to, but a society from which, as an Irishman, and as a homosexual, he was bound eventually to be excluded.

Teleny recounts the story of two lovers, Des Grieux, the narrator, and Teleny, a musician. That their passion is homosexual forbids them from fully recognising and accepting it until fairly late in the novel. Several themes found in other works by Wilde recur: the absence of the beloved adversely affecting the artist’s capabilities, the ‘shallow mask of manners’ which keeps up appearances in polite society, the sensuality of furnishings, comestibles and perfumes, the doppelganger theme, and above all, the tragic inevitability of the dénouement. As in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the golden young hero will be destroyed by those very same elements which have dominated his life. Here, as so often, sex and money are inextricably linked. Teleny forgoes his creative career for love, and is punished by lack of money – the society which wanted him as an artist also oppresses him with debts. He takes another lover who will pay his debts. This lover is Des Grieux’s mother, and Des Grieux discovers them together just after he has secretly paid off the debts Teleny betrayed him to pay. The resulting suicide of the eponymous hero is treated as a victory for common decency, and as a proper punishment for unnatural vice, no value being accorded to the passion the lovers shared. This, it seems to me, is the artistic representation of the phenomenon described by Foucault as ‘the socialisation of  procreative behaviour’ whereby ‘sex’ was described as being caught between a law of reality (economic necessity being its most abrupt and immediate form) and an economy of pleasure which was always attempting to circumvent that law.’ 6 (Italics mine).

Foucault observes that ‘the nineteenth century 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. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality.’ 7 Teleny is the first novel by a major writer which accurately reflects each of these aspects listed by Foucault. The novel is a celebration of passion between men, entirely in keeping with the aesthetic trends of the 1890s, and the generation of writers influenced by Joris-Karl Huysmans (of whom Pierre Loűys was to write an important erotic novel, Aphrodite [1896], which is in many ways complementary to Teleny). The final punishment of the lovers is brought about by an obscure commingling of ‘destiny’ and social constraint – remarkable, indeed, is how often destiny is invoked in the context of inexplicable ‘dubbiosi disiri’.

After the death of Teleny, society rejoices, and Job’s comforters are invoked – ‘the Zophars, Eliphazes, and the Bildads’ – friends who forsake Teleny at the moment when the punishment of death is meted out to the carnal sinner, who has dared to go beyond the norm to find his pleasure and his fulfilment. But, we might observe, Job’s comforters rejoiced in his sufferings, yet were wrong to do so. We recall that ‘the Lord blessed the latter days of Job’ (Job, 42, 12). Instead of being ‘a byword’ to his critics, who abhorred him and kept aloof from him (30, 9-10), he was restored to grace. This might be seen as containing the smallest seed of hope that lovers like Teleny and Des Grieux will overcome the constraints of the late Victorian society which condemns them. And we might find a confirmation of this trace of optimism in the homosexual writer’s references to Inferno and Othello in Teleny.

In recounting the joys of passion and lust (Teleny is cast in the form of a dialogue, as, perhaps as a homage, perhaps only coincidentally, is André Gide’s homosexual apologia, Corydon), Des Grieux quotes Iago’s famous words: ‘I never said with Iago, ‘Virtue, a fig! No, virtue is the sweet flavour of the peach: vice, the tiny droplet of prussic acid – its delicious savour. Life, without either, would be sapidless.’ (Chapter 6)

The use made in Teleny of reference to Dante is perhaps even more interesting. Amid a welter of fairly predictable classical references, ‘Dante’s Francesca and her lover Paolo’ are evoked as lovers for all eternity, just at the moment when Teleny and Des Grieux are about to give themselves up to their passion, to ‘a criminal kiss long withstood and fought against, and therefore long yearned after.’ And that most famous of presumed sodomites, Brunetto Latini, is invoked by Des Grieux as a model: ‘ I would rather be like Brunetto Latini – a man who loved his fellow-men, than like Dante, who sent them all to Hell’. Brunetto Latini is the last of ‘them all’ in Canto XV, and is treated affectionately by Dante, as his old master. It was he who wrote ‘Ki se laisse vaincre, la raison remaint sous le desirier.’8 The final words of the Canto could lend themselves to a Wildean interpretation, particularly in the context of Teleny, where the future homosexual martyr looks forward to a more tolerant world. Brunetto Latini, who ‘parve de costoro / quelli che vince, non colui che perde’, thus becomes an eternal hero, as Francesca and Paolo became eternal lovers.

One of Foucault’s principal and repeated assertions is that sex has been transformed into discourse, its power to threaten the established order thus transmuted.9 The lovers in Dante and Shakespeare see their excess of Eros suddenly turn to Thanatos – the lovers in Teleny self-consciously refer to earlier models of punishment for love in a way which almost foreshadows Wilde’s own self-conscious martyrdom, in his trials and convictions for homosexual offences some eighteen months after the first (anonymous) publication of that novel, By then, to quote Foucault again, the Faustian pact has undergone a metamorphosis. It ‘is now as follows: to exchange life in its entirety for sex itself, for the truth and the sovereignty of sex. Sex is worth dying for. [ …] When a long while ago the West discovered love, it bestowed on it a value high enough to make death acceptable; nowadays it is sex that claims this equivalence, the highest of all.’10

This is the challenge that excess of love has always posed to society. Those who put too high a value on the passions will become victims of passion, or better, of society’s unwillingness to countenance indulgence in such passions. The word ‘jealousy’ is usually brought into play at some stage in the story – Gianciotto reacts in jealous rage, Othello becomes jealous when he thinks Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio, Des Grieux is faced with jealousy of his own mother’s relationship with his beloved. But the greater jealousy is surely the jealousy of society, which is disturbed and threatened by excess of any kind. Hegemonic needs will prevail over individual desires. Western society has tended to suppress eroticism and erotic art in a way that Oriental societies have not – an overly erotic work, like Teleny, is therefore subversive in more ways than one. It is explicitly erotic, and it celebrates an illicit love, or, as Foucault so delicately puts it, ‘a peripheral sexuality’. But, perhaps, even more significant, it extenuates the level of punishment meted out to the carnal sinners – Des Grieux survives, literally, to tell the tale, to assert the existence, and the value of the story, of the erotic experience the characters have lived.

‘If Society’, says Des Grieux, in the final pages of the novel ‘does not ask you to be intrinsically good, it asks you to a make a goodly show of morality and, above all, to avoid scandals.’ The dangerous area between hypocrisy and disgust is the breeding ground of scandal. And it is the scandal that brings about the punishment, rather than the fact of the illicit, abnormal, or unnatural love relationship. Social constraint makes Eros illicit, and liable to concealment. Eros revealed brings Thanatos in its wake.




·         An early version of this paper was published in Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell’Università degli Studi della Basilicata, Potenza.


1.                Ugo Foscolo, La Divina Commedia illustrata da Ugo Foscolo e curata da un italiano, London 1842-43, quoted in Natalino Sapegno (a cura di), Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, Inferno,  III edn., 1985 (I edn., 1955), Firenze, La Nuova Italia Editrice, p. 66n.

2.                Translated by Robert Hurley from the French La Volonté de savoir (1976), 1979, Harmondsworth, Peregrine, 1984, p.87.

3.                There are some thirty operas based on Dante’s story (and on Boccaccio’s and the Anonymous elaborations of it). The best known is by Zandonai (1914), based in its turn on D’Annunzio’s play (1902), but composers as different as Mercadante and Rakhmaninov have also made operatic use of the subject. Tchaikovsky, perhaps unsurprisingly, also found inspiration in the story for his ‘tone poem’ Francesca da Rimini (1876). Romeo and Juliet has inspired an almost equal number of operas, Othello only four, those by Rossini and Verdi being the best known.

4.                Foucault, op. cit., p.130.

5.                In a letter from France to Reggie Turner, dated 3 February 1899. In Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, Oxford, OUP, 1979 (1962), p.348

6.                Foucault, op. cit., p.154.

7.                Foucault, op. cit., p.43.

8.                Trésor, II, 20, 6, quoted in Sapegno, ed. cit., p.576.

9.                Foucault, op. cit., passim, in particular Part Two, Chapter One, ‘The Incitement to Discourse’, pp. 17-35: ‘an imperative was established: Not only will you confess to acts contravening the law, but you will seek to transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse […] The Christian pastoral prescribed as a fundamental duty the task of passing everything having to do with sex through the endless mill of speech.’ (p.21.). Foucault quotes Alfonso de’ Liguori (Préceptes sur le sixième commandement) in support of his argument, with the famous dictum ‘Tell everything […], all consenting thoughts’, which recalls Dante’s ‘quanti dolci pensier, quanto disio / menò costoro al doloroso passo’ (Inferno, V, 113-114). Foucault concludes, ‘since the classical age there has been a constant optimisation and an increasing valorisation of the discourse on sex;  and [ …] this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement, intensification, reorientation, and modification of desire itself.’ (p.23.)  (Italics mine.)

10.            Foucault, op. cit., p.156.


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