THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




The Spahi as Scapegoat: The ‘Little Death’ transgressed in Teleny

Tiffany Thomas


In an article entitled ‘Teleny: The Reverse of the Medal of The Picture of Dorian Gray’ John McRae posits Teleny in a new light: ‘Teleny, a homosexual erotic novel published in 1893, and since 1934 largely attributed to Oscar Wilde, is a significant contribution to the positive working out of a sexual minority ethic’.[1] Taking McRae’s cue, we can isolate certain incidents in the narrative and examine their ability to convey the positive ethic he proposed. Arguably, one of the most transgressive sexual acts occurs in chapter seven when Achmet, a young Syrian who ‘having spent his fortune in the most unbridled debauchery without any damage to his constitution, has enlisted in the Spahis to see what new pleasures Algiers could afford him’,[2] engages in a ‘crime against nature’ at Briancourt’s all male symposium. The crime, as the attending physician Dr. Charles called it, was not recommended and the host commented that ‘it would be worse than buggery, it would be bottlery’.[3] In order to understand the act, we must first analyze the nature of eroticism, and for that we turn to Georges Bataille. It is through Bataille’s reading of eroticism linked to the awareness of death that we can come to realise McRae’s significant claim that Teleny contributes to a positive sexual minority ethic.


In The Tears of Eros (1961) Bataille suggests: ‘We are finally beginning to see the absurdity of any connection between eroticism and morality’.[4] The implication that eroticism independent of moral concerns temporarily blinds the subject is an interesting one. Yet even Bataille’s analysis, though groundbreaking, seems dated if we consider the frenzied lapse of reason apparent in the Bacchic revelries that ultimately purged sin. Euripides’s account of Bacchic revelry reveals the cathartic, and religious, function of ritualistic sin as follows: ‘O happy he! who to his joy is initiated in heavenly mysteries and leads a holy life, joining heart and soul in Bacchic revelry upon the hills, purified from every sin; observing the rights of Cybele, the mighty mother, and brandishing the thyrsus, with ivy-wreathèd head, he worships Dionysus’.[5] Euripides shows us that the link between eros, suspended reason, and spirituality is ancient, and perhaps even universal. Bataille’s link is similar in that it perceives the cathartic function of eros unified with the consciousness of death in what he terms the ‘Little Death’, or orgasm. It is difficult to see how death and eroticism linked are not opposed to life given the procreative end of sexual desire. Unless, that is, we return to the idea that eroticism is not connected to morality, but, as Euripides sees it, spirituality and joy. Bataille asks:

Speaking from within the utilitarian limits of reason, we can see the practical sense and the necessity of sexual disorder. But for their part, were those who gave the name of “little death”[6] to the culminating moment wrong to have perceived its funereal sense?[7]


Sexual disorder, or lapse of reason, enables us to purge our desire in a manner that closely resembles a violent act, sexual penetration. As we know, the object of desire varies per subject’s sexual orientation, but we must realise that one’s orientation or preference is not the point; rather the (frenzied) suspension of reason that precipitates the sexual act is what really matters.


With this basic understanding of eroticism and the ‘little death’, we can return to the Spahi as scapegoat and analyse the culminating scene of Briancourt’s symposium with McRae’s ‘positive homosexual ethic’ in mind. We already know that Achmet is a foreigner, which, according to Renè Girard, characterises the scapegoat. First, Girard explains the historical function of the scapegoat:

The ritual consisted of driving into the wilderness a goat on which all the sins of Israel had been laid. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the goat, and this act was supposed to transfer onto the animal everything likely to poison relations between members of the community. The effectiveness of the ritual was the idea that the sins were expelled with the goat and then the community was rid of them.[8]


In its original sense and practice, the ritual of expulsion depended on animal, not human, sacrifice and thus ridding the contagion was acceptable. Girard conjectures that ‘in a distant period when the ritual was effective as ritual, the transfer of the community’s transgressions onto the goat must have been facilitated by the bad reputation of this animal, by its nauseating odor and its aggressive sexual drive’.[9] When animal sacrifice went out of fashion as a result of its ineffectiveness we continued the practice of expulsion by other socially acceptable means. The notion of the social outcast, for example, retained popularity and this is evident in the lives of our exiled poets Ovid and Dante, in the plays of William Shakespeare, and even more obvious in the life and death of Socrates, and more recently in the parallel life, imprisonment, and death of Oscar Wilde.


So how might Achmet, a Syrian outcast, fit the model? It is Achmet himself who claims the Arabs ‘are not men, they are lions; and they roar to lusty purpose’.[10] Furthermore, he enlisted in the Spahis as a means to that lusty end. Rather pointedly, Achmet willfully submits to be the lamb before the lions. His service, therefore, was motivated by sexual gratification and self-sacrifice, not the call to military duty. Achmet’s outsider status positions him as a classical scapegoat figure. Indeed, Achmet subverts the traditional notion of the sacrificial scapegoat by electing to be scapegoated. Achmet’s transgression can be viewed as a ritualistic sacrificial act in the sense that it precipitates his suicide and thereby cleanses the community of the sin against nature. Traditionally, as we have seen with Girard’s analysis, the function of the scapegoat is to rid the community of contagion, and the real threat to the positive homosexual ethic here is the unnatural act of bottlery, not mutual human sexual desire. Achmet chose to cross the threshold of natural desire despite the highest plea from his community, Dr. Charles’s professional opinion.


The shock of horror that accompanies the bottle’s breakage in Achmet’s anus is actually anti-climactic because, as foreshadowed earlier, it leads to an emergency operation that can only be performed by Dr. Charles with minimal instruments and maximal invasion and risk of infection and swelling. Des Grieux reflects that Achmet ‘suffered the most excruciating pains like a Stoic without uttering a cry or a groan; his courage was indeed worthy of a better cause’.[11] Nevertheless, the intestines were pierced and Achmet’s refusal to seek treatment in a hospital was based on the fear of being exposed. He chooses, rather, to go home, arrange his affairs, and shoot himself. ‘This and another case which happened shortly afterwards,’ explains Des Grieux, ‘cast a dampness on us all, and for some time put an end to Briancourt’s symposiums’.[12] So we can see how the sacrificial act silenced the desire to engage in similar acts and orgies—for some time.


We must also recall the pedagogic eros that this incident threatened to undermine at a critical period in its acceptance. As Linda Dowling explains:

Such writers as Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds would deduce from Plato’s own writings an apology for male love as something not only noble but infinitely more ennobling than an exploded Christianity and those sexual taboos and legal proscriptions inspired by its dogmas.[13]


Bottlery was hardly a step toward the Hellenic ideal and if we are to properly understand the undercurrent of Achmet’s experience, we must be willing to see him as a contagion to the community, albeit self-imposed. His role as scapegoat therefore fulfilled the traditional function of purging unnatural desire and restoring peace (or in this case silence and anonymity) to the community, if only for a time.


Unlike the other transgressive incidents that resulted in violence and death, such as the consumptive whore’s death in chapter three, and the maid’s rape and subsequent suicide in chapter five, the inverted structure of Achmet’s sacrifice stands out in the novel; that is, he induces the ‘crime’ that inevitably kills him. Moreover, unlike the positive homosexual encounters between Teleny and Des Grieux and to a smaller scale the participants of the symposium, Achmet’s transgression is solipsistic rather than mutual; yes, he enlists help, but the idea and pleasure/pain is his alone. Of course, this also challenges the notion of the traditional scapegoat, as suggested earlier.


We can argue that Achmet’s experience, by way of contrast, allows us to see the positive homosexual ethic embedded in Teleny and Des Grieux’s love story, however doomed their story is given the legal, social, and, in Teleny’s particular case, economic realities of the time period. It certainly shows us the struggle homosexual couples endured and it is no small wonder that love survived the obstacles even if only briefly. That brief span of true love and happiness is the real success of Teleny. The future possibility of love when weighed against the long-term prospect of failed and frustrated desire, desire that has violent and deadly consequences, is the lingering message. In the end, we have to come to terms with Bataille’s analysis of eroticism free of morality because it is due to our ability to suspend reason that a higher, spiritual love is sustainable. That said, Achmet’s story cautions us that pursuing a life of dissipation and debauchery depletes the spiritual pursuit of a positive homosexual ethic. Here, the desire worth imitating is positive desire.



Bataille, Georges. The Tears of Eros. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989.

---. Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights, 1986.

Dowling, Linda. Hellenism & Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Euripides, The Plays of Euripides, ‘The Bacchantes’. London: George Bell & Sons, 1891.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. New York: Orbis Books, 2001.

McRae, John. Potenza.

Wilde, Oscar. Teleny, ed., John McRae. London: GMP Publishers, Ltd., 1986.




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[1] John McRae (Potenza), 291.

[2] Oscar Wilde and Others, Teleny (London: GMP Publishers Ltd., 1986), 146. The definitive English text edition published in 1986 by GMP Publishers, Ltd.

[3] Ibid., 153.

[4] Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989), 19. Originally published as Les Larmes d’Eros (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1961).

[5] Euripides, The Plays of Euripides, ‘The Bacchantes’ (London: George Bell & Sons, 1891), 91. Translated into English prose from the text of Paley by Edward P. Coleridge.

[6] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986): ‘Pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as a ‘little death’ (la petite morte), 170.

[7] Bataille, The Tears of Eros, 33-34.

[8] Renè Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 154-155. Originally published as Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair (Paris: Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1999).

[9] Ibid., 155.

[10] Teleny, 153.

[11] Ibid., 157.

[12] Ibid., 157-158.

[13] Linda Dowling, Hellenism & Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), xiv-xv.