Alfred, Lord Douglas on “The Language of a Sodomite”

JC Leyendecker Cluett Dress shirts 1911

Speak up, good sir…

I recently picked up Michael S. Sherry’s study Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imaginary Conspiracy, and was intrigued by a passing comment that one of the charges that inspired Canadian-born dancer Maud Allan to file a libel suit in 1918 against a British MP was his charge that she spoke “a foreign ‘language generally used by homosexualists'” (9). As  the utilization of coded, “queer” use of language is one of the main focuses of my thesis, I was immediately struck by this comment: while language use has become a major point of research in recent LGBT/queer scholarship, contemporaneous references to the “secret” language used by queer subcultural communities in the first half of the twentieth century are much more rare.

Maud AllanUnfortunately Sherry doesn’t provide the source of the quote, and I have yet to locate it. But reading through Michael Kettle’s Salome’s Last Veil: The Libel Case of the Century for possible clues led me to the trial testimony of Alfred, Lord Douglas. This is, of course, the same “Bosie” Douglas who two decades earlier had gained international notoriety due to his relationship with Oscar Wilde that resulted in the libel trail that destroyed the reputation of the celebrated British author and wit. I won’t go into detail regarding either Douglas or Allan here, but in short, the situation arose after a British MP published an article titled “Cult of the Clitoris” which launched a convoluted claim that Allan’s involvement in putting on two private performances of Wilde’s Salomé indicated that not only was she a lesbian, but in collusion with German conspirators and thus part of a larger effort by homosexuals to undermine the British war effort. Allan sued, and as if to bring the connection to the Wilde trial full circle, Douglas, who had been the original English translator of Wilde’s play Salome, was brought in by the MP’s defense as an expert witness.

Kettle quotes from Douglas’s testimony extensively, and even taken into account Douglas’s post-trial repudiation of Wilde and relatively recent conversion to Catholicism, a lot of it is pretty vile in its blatant hypocrisy (example: Q: “Do you regard [Wilde’s] work as classics… to be cherished by the nation?” A: “I think most of them ought to be destroyed. I do not think he ever wrote a thing in his life that had not an evil intention…” (173)).

Lord Alfred Douglas Bosie 1903

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas in 1903.

Needless to say, the testimony generally consists of dragging the long-deceased Wilde through the mud once again, and a whole lot of evasive questioning regarding the topic that nobody wanted to actually name. Everyone involved takes on an air of self-righteous indignation, and all takes a turn in a direction specifically relevant to my own interests when Douglas is questioned about Wilde’s use of language. Initially demurring from a question asking if Salome’s declaration of wanting to “touch the body” of Jokanaan was intended to be “physical or spiritual” in nature, when pressed Douglas answers:

Douglas: Physical, if anyone calls it spiritual, it is a pure misuse of the word.
Lawyer: Would you call that language the language of a sodomite? (177)

Kettle notes that Douglas paused on this point, and when pressed again, offers a vague, circuitous response that Wilde was referencing “the language used by people who described [sodomy] as spiritual” before declaring:

Douglas: […] These sort of people always refer to revolting things under pretty names. They try to disguise the horribleness of the action by giving it such names; they say beautiful, classic, and so on. They will not speak of it by the outspoken English name; they disguise it.
Lawyer: Have these people a common patois?
Douglas: Yes, they have a jargon. (177)

Douglas finally concludes with a rather infuriating disavowal: “I have not had anything to do with them for twenty years.” The questioning then resumes along the lines of sussing out larger issues of what constitutes “spiritual love,” etc. Douglas seems to become a bit exasperated at a question asking if Douglas would “call sadism” what Wilde would “called spiritual,” proclaiming:

Douglas: Yes. With those sort of people evil is their good; everything is topsy turvey; physical is spiritual; spiritual is physical, and so on; it is a perversion, an inversion, of everything. Wilde was a man who made evil his good all through his life. That was the gospel he preached. (178, emphasis mine)

young and evil novel first edition ford tylerConsidering that the text I am writing my thesis on is titled The Young and Evil, the statements I underlined above are particularly useful to me in my own research. I have been asked on multiple occasions what the “evil” refers to, especially after asserting that the novel is unique in its basic assertion that queer characters (or individuals) aren’t inherently damned, tortured, or evil, but just people living their lives as they best see fit. The nuances of the novel’s title deserves its own consideration at some point, but I was immediately struck with how Douglas articulates what I believe is exactly the strategy later employed by Ford and Tyler, a “topsy turvey” inversion–indeed, even a “perversion”–of seemingly commonplace terms in a strategy that deconstructionist theorist Barbara Johnson would later still characterize as a type of “chiasmus” where an author (in her case Herman Melville, another proto-queer author) “position[s] an opposition between good and evil only to make each term take on the properties of its opposite” (571-2).

To return to Allan, in the end she met the same sad fate as Wilde: to wide public approval she lost her suit and the MP she sued acquitted of all charges. Much like Wilde, her career was irrevocably ruined by the decision, and her career quickly waned, the perceived threat of that which was not supposed to speak its name claiming yet another victim.

Maude Allan as Salome

WORKS CITED

Johnson, Barbara. “Melville’s Fist: The Execution of ‘Billy Budd’.”Studies in Romanticism, 18.4 (1979): 567-599. (Proquest Link, subscription required.)

Kettle, Michael. Salome’s Last Veil: The Libel Case of the Century. London: Hart-Davis, 1977. Print.

Sherry, Michael S. Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2007. Print.

IMAGES

J.C. Leyendecker – Cluett Dress Shirt Advertisement (1911) via Collector’s Weekly

Images of Maud Allan as Salome via the mist~gates

Lord Alfred Douglas by George Charles Beresford (1903) via Wikipedia

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2 thoughts on “Alfred, Lord Douglas on “The Language of a Sodomite”

  1. Interesting posts. You mention a “coded” language but do not clearly state its name. Are you referring to polari and gay slang during the late Victorian and Edwardian period?

    • Hi mercuneutics,

      Thanks for the comment! With your question, are you referring to the topic of my thesis, or the coded “language of the sodomite” Douglas refers to? In reference to polari and gay slang, I’d say both and neither in both situations–I think Douglas was attempting to articulate how homosexuals wielded language in a manner that disguised it from “outsider” ears, which certainly utilized both polari and slang, but also the the more complex “topsy turvy”-ness he cites, which could be considered codified but not coded.

      My thesis deals with similar issues: though The Young and Evil certainly employs examples of gay slang (less so polari, given its American origin), it does not do so in a manner that is codified in a way that can be so neatly deciphered. Instead, it employs Douglas’s “topsy turvy”-ness–or queerness, in contemporary parlance–to develop a literary/linguistic style that can be (potentially) understood by a reader “in the know” but imply something different altogether to other types of readers.

      Does that at all answer your question? I’d also say that part of the complexity is that in conversation coded language like polari and exchange has a slightly different function than it does in a literary work, where it also takes on additional layers of metaphor and meaning.

      Best,
      Jesse

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