A friend was wandering through Charing Cross the other day, where he spotted a rather sweet little copy of Teleny and picked it up for me. It was actually a fairly modern edition, mocked up to look antique, pocket-sized, gilt-edged and leather bound. I’m sure those silly fin de siècle boys would have adored it.
It’s been literally years since I’ve read Teleny, not since my Wilde-infatuated adolescence, and it’s actually strangely intriguing. I’ve never managed to find a response to it that treads a sensible middle ground between OMG WILDE WROTE THIS and OMG WILDE COULD NEVER HAVE WRITTEN THIS. I think it was most probably written as a sort of round robin, but I do like to think of Wilde and his circle of, uh, Athenian boy lovers giggling and swooning over it like the dirty little secret it assuredly was. This being so, it’s a very uneven book. I can’t really judge its merit as pornography because, well, it’s hard to find eroticism in artefacts from the past because they’re written to such a different set of expectations. I mean, Victorian porn seems to me to be utterly obsessed with pubic hair. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with pubic hair but I wouldn’t, for example, linger lovingly over its thickness, texture or volume.
But I will confess to finding historical pornography interesting precisely because it seems so alien – it’s like a little glimpse under the sofa of history. So revealing. Teleny is, well, odd. It circles around the thing it really wants to be talking about (the love story between Camille and Teleny) for ages, wandering into grotesque depictions of prostitutes and other unpleasantly described heterosexual sex acts (including a rape … by the narrator … but it’s a chambermaid so, apparently, it doesn’t count) against which are juxtaposed the extreme romance and sensuality of Camille and Teleny’s encounters. I mean they fall in love initially over sharing the same vision while Teleny is playing the piano… I know what the fuck. It’s an extremely peculiar passage in which we move from this highly lyrical, entirely ridiculous prose … to physical arousal.
First I saw the Alhambra in all the luxuriant loveliness of its Moorish masonry – those sumptuous symphonies of stones and bricks – so like the flourishes those quaint gipsy melodies. Then a smouldering fire began to kindle itself within my breast. 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 from the cup of satyrion philtre.
The vision changed; instead of Spain, I saw a barren land., the sun-lit sands of Egypt, wet by the sluggish Nile; where Adrian stood wailing, forlorn, disconsolate for he had lost forever the lad he loved so well. Spellbound by that soft music, which sharpened every sense, I now began to understand things hitherto so strange, the love the mighty monarch felt for his fair Grecian slave, Antinous, who – like unto Christ – died for his master’s sake. And thereupon my blood all rushed from my heart into my head, then it coursed down, through every vein, like waves of molten lead.
And on and on it goes… (Also: Victorian homosexuals, apparently obsessed with precome)
The other thing I find rather appealingly strange is the … I don’t know what to call it … the emotional vulnerability of the male body. I mean, as well as spurting pearlescent drops of precome, they are panting, trembling, swooning, fainting… endlessly. It is hard not to interpret all this swooning and trembling as feminising but equally I think that has more to do with our constructed ideas of masculinity than anything inherently womanish in the expressive body … but then I think the narrative spaces of the physical self are often part of the discourse of the socially oppressed (women in Medieval Europe for example – lots of starving yourself for Jesus). So make of that what you will. Regardless, I find it somewhat saddening that even a century later it still feels rather subversive.