In this book, Dominic Janes proposes to provide a theory of how the ‘closet’ has functioned as a way of simultaneously obscuring and insinuating male sexual deviance, from the eighteenth century to the present day. Janes states in his introduction that he is particularly inspired by, and seeks to build on, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s influential exploration of the fine line between homophobia and homoeroticism in Epistemology of the Closet (1990). But turning primarily to visual and artistic sources instead of literature, and stretching farther back in time than Sedgwick’s late nineteenth-century starting-point, Janes arrives at something different: a transhistorical stereotype of the effeminate, flamboyant, and assumed to be sexually deviant, man. This stereotype encodes different forms of deviance at different times, from sodomy or aristocratic libertinism to the gayness of the present day. But, for the men who assume its characteristics, it is simultaneously a gesture of countercultural defiance and a vector for suspicion—often one which, as it comes to be closely identified with the construction of the ‘sodomite’, the ‘homosexual’ or the ‘queer’, draws attention away from the sexual practices of more normatively-presenting men. This, then, is Janes’s epistemology of the closet, a phenomenon whereby insinuation and suspicion go hand in hand with a visual image of what a ‘queer’ man must be—but in which queer men might also repurpose that visual image to their own, empowering, ends. Janes traces this through a series of short chapters which offer case-studies largely drawn from canonical visual art, but also venture outward to consider a wider range of textual evidence. The first chapters, focusing on the eighteenth century, include a close reading of a Hogarth painting and its connection of sodomy with anti-Catholic politics; a provocative analysis that connects Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime to a theory of homoerotic masochism drawn from contemporary queer theory; and an account of how eighteenth-century Gothic and Romantic art and literature represent fears of untrammelled male desire. The second part of the book turns to the nineteenth century, but centres on the fin-de-siècle moment which Foucault, Sedgwick and others have long associated with the birth of male homosexuality as a category. These case-studies take on the Victorian literary and visual culture of the body, from muscular Christianity to Orientalist and cross-class fantasies; a close reading of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians; and a study of the spectre of scandal surrounding public-school expulsions for ‘immorality’ (the only section of the book to draw on archival research). Finally, a twentieth-century section offers a study of Francis Bacon’s paintings of abject male figures in the context of inter-war police raids on queer gathering-places; a chapter on Cecil Beaton’s photographs of royalty and the queer cultural concept of the ‘diva’, which seeks to understand those who chose not to come out after gay liberation; and a chapter about the height of the AIDS crisis, which considers the artist Derek Jarman’s life in Dungeness alongside other instances in which sexual orientation was publicly effaced from the identity of a man dying of AIDS. Janes’s field is Visual Studies, and thus it will come as no surprise that close visual analysis is his book’s strength. Particularly innovative and engaging are his readings of Hogarth’s The Gate of Calais and of Bacon’s paintings, as well as a section about the association of queer persecuted figures with Biblical martyrdom that comes in the chapter on nineteenth-century ‘Athletics and Aesthetics’. Oxford University Press has created a beautiful volume that allows for effective presentation of images alongside text, strengthening the book’s visual impact. Cultural historians in particular may find that they are able to draw new insights about how to incorporate visual evidence into their work from Janes’s approach. Historians of gender and sexuality, however, may find themselves frustrated by the resolutely high-cultural cast of Janes’s vision of queer culture and his lack of interest in less ‘diva’-esque forms of queer expression. Historical scholarship on a wide range of queer male experiences over the period in which Janes is interested has dramatically widened the frame beyond a linear account of the development of present-day gay identity, but Janes shares little ground with the more historicist accounts of closeting, coming out and the making of queer male identity which appear in the work of scholars such as Deborah Cohen, Matt Cooks and Matt Houlbrook or, outside the UK context, Margot Canaday and George Chauncey. In Janes’s earlier chapters, an element of class analysis might have helped to lend greater historical specificity: distinguishing an identifiably queer subject from a more polymorphous elite male libertine; or explaining the situational homosexuality of contexts such as boarding schools and the military. His narrative also gives rather short shrift to the nineteenth century before 1880. Yet this is not really a book about the history of homosexuality. When theorising the closet, Janes has a tendency to collapse the centuries: linking the Burkean sublime to the homoerotic masochism of Foucault, Edmund White and Leo Bersani, with the incredible observation that ‘The sublime was thus to be approached almost like a gym workout’ (p. 51); moving easily between Wilde and Alan Hollinghurst; ending, just like Sedgwick’s Epistemology, with the AIDS crisis, despite being written twenty-five years later. With these efforts, Janes seems to be constructing a more expansive queer male canon: one more generous to visual culture, and in which Burke can sit alongside Bersani as a pre-eminent queer theorist. It may not be a project which hews closely to how historians currently conceptualise the construction of sexual identities, but it is an intriguing one which makes for compelling reading. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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