[Essay] Queer Time in Woolf and Wilde — Josh Mcloughlin

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando imagine individuals whose queerness is linked not only to aestheticism, alternative sexual and/or gender practices and identities and visual style, but to a specifically queer temporality.[1] This essay will demonstrate how both eponymous heroes resist what Elizabeth Freeman has called ‘chrononormativity’.[2] Extending this position beyond a mere dialogue between contemporary queer theory and two canonically queer texts, I read Friedrich Nietzsche to develop a new way of thinking about normative and queer temporality, highlighting not only the shortcomings of José Esteban Muñoz’s recent – and influential[3] – queer utopianism, but of those critics who, despite offering to critique ‘reproductive futurism’, fail to properly envision a queer alternative.[4] I begin by tackling recent theories of queer time, showing how Muñoz makes use of a skewed reading of Martin Heidegger and Giorgio Agamben which does not account for both philosophers’ critiques of futurity and productivity, before synthesising contemporary queer perspectives with Nietzsche’s own thoughts on time to establish a truly queer temporality. After sketching the queer affinities between Wilde’s and Woolf’s eponymous heroes, I demonstrate how both these individuals offer a vision of a queer temporality which resists productive teleology.

I consider ‘queer futures’ – understood as a queer position taken up in relation to futurity – as legible not only in individual life timelines, but also within literary form itself. Since literary narratives ultimately legitimate ways of thinking about temporality outside of the literary, in the lived ‘reality’ of individuals, I not only examine how alternative temporalities are embodied in literary subjects inhabiting queer life-narratives – Gray and Orlando – but how textuality itself can ‘embody’ queer futurity. This essay will not so much read queerness in terms of desire or sexuality as temporality; not so much a stylized subjective mode concerned with the manipulation of signs as a temporal mode of life; not so much as ‘other’ to normative gender as ‘other’ to the normative temporality encoded within and enforced by sanctioned gender roles and their narrative accomplices. Whilst I refer to conventional, taken-for-granted signifiers of queer subjectivity – indeed, my study begins by defining queerness in such terms – my aim here is to develop a theory of queer temporality, not queer sexuality, aesthetics or politics. The engagements with aesthetics, sexuality and representation made by the queer individuals and texts I examine, therefore, will be read as manifesting a larger strategy for ‘living aslant’ to the normative temporality which undergirds normative formations of gender and/or sexuality.[5]


Queer Theory: Temporality and Normativity

What is ‘queer’? Since the field of queer theory and criticism is large and diverse, and its central term is often taken for granted, we need to be clear.[6] Queerness, Michael Warner says, ‘resists regimes of the normal’.[7] Normative temporality here describes the ‘normal’, ideologically sanctioned chronology of the life of a subject interpellated into the heteronormative culture of modernity.[8] Accordingly, ‘queer temporality’ would be a mode of living which adopts an oppositional temporal logic to the prevailing norm. But what is that norm? What constitutes ‘queer’ and ‘normative’ in the field of temporality is contested critical territory, and so I want to begin by examining Muñoz’s recent study Cruising Utopia. For Muñoz, queer temporality is utopian and futural:

the here and now is a prison house. […] Queerness is a longing that propels us forward, […] that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing. […] Queerness is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future.[9]

Favouring futurity and utopianism as properly queer modes of living, Muñoz looks to disassemble the ‘devastating logic of the world of the here and now […], a version of reality that naturalizes cultural logics such as capitalism and heteronormativity’.[10] Yet, Muñoz’s attempt to philosophically anchor this queer ontology results in a misunderstanding of Martin Heidegger’s and Giorgio Agamben’s theorisation of the relation between futurity, productivity and being. Muñoz seeks to ally ‘an LGBT position that does not bend to straight time’s gravitational pull [with] […] Heidegger’s descriptions of freedom as unboundedness’.[11] However, ‘technological consciousness’, the very ‘prison house’ Heidegger and Agamben seek to unlock, can be mapped on to the futurity espoused by Muñoz. [12] Within ‘technological consciousness’, Heidegger explains, the Being of a thing (being) is effaced because objects are seen only for their technological or industrial potentiality.[13] When a stone is crafted into a tool, the materiality of the stone ‘disappears into usefulness’ – in fact, ‘the material is all the better […] the less it resists vanishing in the equipmental being of the equipment’.[14] The being of an object is truncated within ‘technological consciousness’ (a Heideggerian epithet for ‘modernity’), turned towards a productive future which obscures the presence of being. Heidegger’s philosophy aims at the ‘unconcealment’ (alétheia) and recovery of being from the stifling, futural productivity demanded of objects by technological consciousness.[15] If we substitute the Heideggerian object for the (queer) subject, as Muñoz does, what appears as the normative, ‘technological’ mode of time is not ‘the devastating logic of the here and now’ but an ‘equipmental’ futurity.

Muñoz’s apparently ‘queer’ temporality, in its focus on forward-looking, ‘utopian’ productivity and its abhorrence of stasis, amounts to a Heideggerian ‘vanishing’ or ‘disappear[ing] into usefulness’ of the would-be queer subject at the very least, and at the most dangerously underestimates Heidegger’s antagonism to ‘equipmental’, future-oriented ontology. What would truly constitute a Heideggerian ‘unboundedness’ would be a temporal strategy which allows the subject to resist ‘vanishing’ behind and beneath the demand for utility and equipmental being. As Judith Halberstam points out, ‘queer uses of time and space develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction’.[16] What could be more emblematic of Muñoz calls ‘straight time’ than the future-oriented, socially useful institutions of maturity, marriage and reproduction?[17] It is the productive futurity vaunted by Muñoz that ‘naturalizes [these] cultural logics [of] […] heteronormativity’.

For Agamben, whose theorisation of Aristotelian potentia Muñoz would ally to his queer utopianism, the object within technological modernity exists suspended in potentia, ‘which characterises the mode of presence of that which […] does not yet possess itself in its own shape as its own end, but exists simply in the mode of availability’.[18] That ‘availability’ encompasses a productive utility which is yet to be, and Agamben’s object of potentia, properly understood, is a ‘[dis]possess[ed]’ being-for-the-future in a profoundly negative way. Agamben, rejecting useful, productive futurity, urges a reparative ontology of being ‘turned-towards-nothingness’.[19] Muñoz’s ‘queer’ subject, oriented towards a useful, productive potentia, actually parallels the curtailed ontology of the object within technological modernity. Muñoz sees queer time as avowedly futural, whereas Heidegger and Agamben argue that being turned-towards utility, productivity and futurity is a profoundly truncated mode of being. Muñoz errs in decrying ‘straight time’s ‘presentness’’, since ‘straight time’ actually compels the heteronormative subject on a future-oriented process of useful maturation.[20] In this way, Muñoz’s futural utopianism fails to offer a truly reparative queer temporality.

This futural temporality is usefully theorised by E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen as ‘the designated schedule of reproductive heterosexuality’.[21] In their analysis, the ‘hysterical’ female body becomes temporized as a being-for-reproduction governed by futural temporality – the beat of the ‘body-clock’. Halberstam has also argued:

queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience – namely birth, marriage, reproduction and death.[22]

Halberstam’s ‘paradigmatic markers’ are the punctuations along McCallum and Tuhkanen’s ‘designated schedule’, indicating proper passage from one productive phase of life to the next. Lee Edelman has also shown how normative temporality is governed by ‘reproductive futurism’, which he posits as the ‘organising principle of communal relations’.[23] This futurism sustains ‘the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable […] the possibility of a queer resistance’.[24] Edelman explains that ‘queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children’, the side outside of the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism’.[25] Whilst McCallum, Tuhkanen and Edelman go some way to addressing the problem of futurity, none can offer a solution to the problem of what constitutes queer temporality. Edelman warns against queer utopianism, bringing to our attention ‘futurity’s unquestioned value’ and therefore its normativity, but he offers only a negative politics in response.[26] In ‘embrac[ing]’ queer negativity, avoiding ‘hop[ing] [or] forging thereby some more perfect social order’,[27] Edelman’s analysis stops at identifying futurity as a constraining force on queer practice, offering no ‘queer resistance’ of its own. McCallum and Tuhkanen suggest a tactics of refusing to follow the ‘body-clock’, but their focus on women’s bodies offers too narrow a perspective to realise a broader queer strategy for resisting the temporal regime Edelman identifies.

Elizabeth Freeman offers both a useful counterpoint to Muñoz and a viable strategy for resisting futurity. Like Edelman, McCallum and Tuhkanen, Freeman considers futurity and (re)productivity the signatures of a heteronormative temporality – what she terms ‘chrononormativity’.[28] What Muñoz sees as a ‘longing’ for better, more productive queer becomings, Freeman sees as an acquiescence to ‘the use of time to organise individual bodies toward maximum productivity’, which governs a ‘heterogendered and class-inflected’ organisation of subjects. Borrowing from Dana Luciano, Freeman insists:

in chronobiopolitics […] individual bodies are synchronized not only with one another but also with larger temporal schema. […]. In a chronobiological society, the state and other institutional, including representational apparatuses, link properly temporized bodies to narratives of movement and change. These are teleological schemes of events or strategies for living such as marriage, accumulation of health and wealth for the future, reproduction, childrearing, and death and its attendant rituals.[29]

Freeman explicitly links what Muñoz would call ‘straight time’ with ‘teleolog[y]’: ‘properly temporized bodies’ are those heading ‘for the future’ on a trajectory punctuated by the same ‘paradigmatic markers’ Halberstam identifies: ‘marriage, accumulation of health and wealth for the future, reproduction, childrearing, and death’. Accordingly, an ‘[im]properly temporized bod[y]’ would be turned away from fruitful productivity and, therefore, futurity. Put another way, a properly radical mode of being would be, as Agamben says, ‘turned-toward-nothingness’ – not towards the potentia Munoz mistakenly celebrates.[30] Seen in this way, normativity is emphatically governed by and oriented towards the ‘larger temporal schema’ of productive maturation and futurity. Freeman offers instead:

ways of living aslant to dominant forms of object-choice, coupledom, family, marriage, sociability and self-presentation and thus out of synch with state-sponsored narratives of belonging and becoming.[31]

Freeman identifies ‘futurity’ as part of the regime queerness resists, and so queerness means being out of ‘synch’. Queerness is therefore located in those ‘[im]properly temporized’ texts, meanings and practices which reject ‘teleological’ life narratives. Where McCallum, Tuhkanen and Edelman lack a coherent strategy for resisting futurism, Freeman develops a tactics of ‘living aslant’, ‘prevaricat[ing], […] to linger, to dally, to take pleasure in tarrying’ which leads us away from queer negativity and towards the queer temporality at work, as I will demonstrate, in the work of Wilde and Woolf.[32]

Before turning to literary queerness, I want draw on Nietzsche not only because his analyses are near-contemporaneous with Wilde and Woolf’s late nineteenth and early twentieth century fictional texts, but because Nietzsche’s philosophy of modernity originates outside queer academia, offering a different understanding of what constitutes normativity and what, accordingly, might qualify as a radical alternative in what is a heavily-populated critical field.[33] Elaine P. Miller has demonstrated the importance of temporality for Nietzsche.[34] However, although her conclusion that Nietzsche favours ‘restraint’ over passion as a truly Dionysian rhythm suggests an anti-teleological streak in his philosophy, Miller’s ultimate concern is to uncover a Nietzschean aesthetic, rather than a Nietzschean temporality.[35] We need to look again at what Nietzsche says, not only about time, but about the relationship between individuals and temporality. Nietzsche’s early work offers a specifically temporal strategy for resisting what he calls ‘world-process[es]’.[36] Nietzsche urges us to ‘refrain from the constructions of the world-process’ by attaining to ‘individuals [who] do not carry forward any kind of process but live contemporaneously with one another’.[37] Nietzsche stresses the point on more than one occasion, offering a thinly veiled attack on Hegel’s teleological history when he mocks the fin de siècle fashion for ‘the total surrender of the personality to the world-process’.[38] Hegelian history is cognate with the late-nineteenth century ‘world-process[es]’ Nietzsche urges us to resist, since both are turned – and turn the individual –towards futurity. This antipathy to a life-trajectory marks Nietzschean being as avowedly anti-teleological, – anti-Geist – and against the ‘designated schedule’ meted out for subjects in modernity.[39] We can link Heidegger’s and Agamben’s opposition to the ‘availability’ for productivity demanded by ‘technological consciousness’ to Nietzsche’s account of the temporal demands of modernity (coded in what Nietzsche calls ‘history’). Nietzsche says:

we know, indeed, what history can do when it gains a certain ascendancy, we know it only too well: it can cut off the strongest instincts of youth, its fire, defiance, unselfishness and love, at the roots, damp down the heat of its sense of justice, suppress or regress its desire to mature slowly with the counter-desire to be ready, useful, fruitful as quickly as possible.[40]

Heidegger’s opposition to a futural, ‘equipmental’ being is anticipated in Nietzsche’s critique of the modern orientation to ‘useful[ness]’. Just as Heideggerian being is truncated, ‘[dis]possessed’ within technological consciousness, so too are Nietzsche’s modern subjects ‘cut off’, ‘swept along’ into ‘the mature manhood which is striven for everywhere’. [41] ‘Youth’, uniquely sensitive to the demands of maturation and ‘fruitful’ productivity, is nonetheless a temporal category not yet fully subject to the demands of the ‘world-process’. Whereas Edelman dismisses the category of youth at a stroke, because ‘the Child has come to embody for us the telos of the social order’, Nietzsche’s account places youth on the cusp before the demands of futurity set in. As such Nietzschean youth can be seen as occupying a radical (because as-yet undecided) boundary which could fork out into new temporalities if only the possibility and viability of such alterity was imagined – for example in literature. The ‘instincts of youth’, in resisting the ‘desire to be ready, useful, fruitful’, offer a model for a radical, queer relation to time.

In the same way Freeman theorises proper queer time as that which refuses futurity, so too does Nietzsche urge us to preserve youth as a category of being not oriented toward mature productivity. After all, within ‘chrononormativity’ – if we combine the two thinkers – the subject is compelled to reject youth as an unproductive phase of being in order to submit to the ‘constructions of the world-process’. Nietzsche therefore suggests favouring the digressive and playful (because future-averse and ‘useless’) youthful present over a productive, teleological maturity, urging us to be ‘individuals [who] do not carry forward any kind of process but live contemporaneously with one another’.[42] Indeed, Nietzsche’s term ‘contemporaneously’ comes from the Latin con (‘together’) and tempus (‘time’).[43] ‘Prevarication’ means being ‘evasive’ and ‘non-commital’, in both language and action.[44] Prevarication, then, represents a perfect strategy of resistance, given its power of refusal (‘non-commital’) and the possibility for ‘eva[ding]’ normativity. Combining Freeman with Nietzsche once more, a queer ‘prevarication’ that delights in the here and now, resisting futurity in favour of ‘contemporane[ity]’, contains the promise of a collective – and effective – queer praxis. To resist the future, then, is not ‘static’, as Muñoz would have it, but, ‘evasive’, agile. As I will now show, strategies like ‘prevarication’, ‘living aslant’ and refusing to ‘carry forward any kind of process’ constitute viable ways of resisting normative temporality.


Queer Practice: Orlando & The Picture of Dorian Gray

In Orlando and The Picture of Dorian Gray, queer-youthful ‘prevarication’ and ‘tarry[ing]’ make a mockery of futurity as the governing logic of both subjectivity and narrative representation. But are Orlando and Gray unproblematically queer individuals? Gray might the queer subject par excellence: Wilde himself – who Alan Sinfield calls the archetypal ‘always-already queer’ and one of the ‘key sites upon which a modern queer identity has been constituted’ – admitted that ‘Dorian [is] what I would like to be’.[45] Sinfield goes on to locate queerness within a matrix of ‘immorality, luxury, insouciance, decadence and aestheticism’.[46] The connections between Woolf’s Orlando and Wilde’s Dorian Gray are legion, and both embody Sinfield’s markers of queer identity. Gray is an aristocratic, drug-using aesthete and scandalous lothario (with both women and, it is suggested, men).[47] Orlando is also a wealthy aesthete involved in the not inconsiderable scandal of changing sex overnight. Orlando is always ‘flinging’ himself on the earth or ‘from his horse’ or ‘under his favourite oak tree’ – or like Gray, ‘flinging himself’ on some sumptuous piece of furniture or ‘reclining in a luxurious arm-chair’.[48] Both are decadent aesthetes, especially in the realm of desire: just as Orlando’s female suitors are named as they are ‘in his sonnets’, Gray sees Sybil Vane as ‘Rosalind […], Juliet’ and a host of other Shakespearean lovers.[49] Whilst Gray cannot match Orlando’s centuries-old ‘The Oak Tree’, he is moved to ‘cover page after page with wild words of sorrow, and wilder words of pain’ over Vane.[50] Just as Orlando looks to literature to shape his (and later her identity), so too does Dorian’s encounter with the book Lord Henry gives him awake an obsessive exegetical self-fashioning.[51] Gray, like Orlando, becomes ‘absorbed, […] read[ing] on by [a] wan light till he could read no more’.[52] Later, the narrator reinforces how ‘over and over again Dorian used to read this fantastic chapter’.[53] Indeed Dorian’s ‘prevaricat[ing]’ reading practices – refusing to read towards the end – hint at the wider queer temporality Gray demonstrates throughout the text.

These queer, sensitive aesthetes also indulge in what Sinfield codes as a queer ‘immorality’. Gray frequents the brothels, pubs and opium dens of London’s east end, ‘brawling with foreign sailors in a low den in the distant parts of Whitechapel’ or in ‘Blue Gate Fields’ – just a stone’s throw from the young Orlando’s favourite east-London haunt, ‘Wapping Old Stairs and the beer gardens at night’ with women ‘perched on his knee’.[54] Orlando’s sexual queerness is hinted at: violent ‘rumours gathered around him’ as ‘he became adored of many women and some men’, eventually falling for the rugged sailor Shelmerdine.[55] Basil Hallward strongly suggests that Gray has been engaged in homosexuality as he accuses him, ‘why is your friendship so fatal to young men?’[56] Sinfield’s queer signifiers, then, – ‘immorality, luxury, insouciance, decadence and aestheticism’ – offer a way into thinking about Gray and Orlando as queer archetypes, since they ape the qualities of the ‘image’ of queerness, Wilde himself.[57] However, I want to go beyond Sinfield, since my concern here is with identifying queer temporality, not just the literary offspring of Wilde’s personality. Neither Gray nor Orlando are subject to what Freeman has termed ‘chrononormativity’, since neither are ‘organize[d] […] towards maximum productivity’ and futurity. On the contrary, both figures (and the texts they inhabit) embody precisely the ‘aslant’ prevarication and ‘tarrying’ strategy I consider a properly queer use of time.[58]


Woolf’s parodic treatment of the Victorian biographical form speaks to the nature of the temporality that form implicitly espouses: a determined, purposeful life whose productive future is readily legible in a past moving steadily toward a profitable fulfilment, ending in death. The Victorian biographer ‘plods’ […] on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave’, a future-oriented writing which legitimates the normative productive futurity we have theorised above.[59] Orlando, at once a critique of formal Victorian biography, is at the same time a critique of thinking about being-in-the-world as always meaning being-toward-futurity, and this biographical ‘plodding […] on and on’ towards the future – a form which ‘owes much’ to teleological bildungsroman – is set against Orlando’s own tactics of ‘prevarica[tion]’. [60] Woolf’s parody of the ‘serious writing’ of Victorian biography, then, goes hand in hand with a parody of ‘serious’ – future-driven, normative – life narratives. Woolf’s preface mocks the ‘designated schedule’ of narrative, warning that the ‘book can only disappoint’.[61] The rambling, excessive preface, with no less than 60 acknowledgements, threatens to steal the thunder of the very ‘biography’ itself. Orlando, following the narrator’s strategy of ‘looking left [and] right’ – which maps onto Freeman’s tactic of ‘tak[ing] pleasure in tarrying’ – offers a model for becoming one of Nietzsche’s ‘individuals [who] do not carry forward any kind of process’.[62]

Orlando’s propensity to what Freeman calls queer ‘prevarication’ begins in his youth and continues throughout his life. Orlando soon ‘[grows] tired […] of the discomfort of this way of life [in the east end]’: even as a youth, Orlando propagates the kind of non-committal approach to lived experience which refuses the mono-logic of the ‘chrononormative’ life timeline.[63] He ‘dr[aws] back from the marriage’ of three eligible female suitors, implicitly refusing the heteronormative institution of marriage and foreshadowing his (or rather, her) later explicit critique of such coupling. What this signals is a radical preservation of youthful prevarication which matches Nietzsche’s call to resist the ‘constructions of the world-process’ which ‘swe[ep]’ youth and into teleological adulthood. Later, the narrator, merging with Orlando’s consciousness, urges that ‘it is neither articles by Nick Greene on John Donne nor eight-hour bills nor covenants nor factory acts that matter; it’s something useless, sudden, violent; something that costs a life; red, blue, purple; a spirit; a splash; like those hyacinths’.[64] It is not the ‘constructions of the world-process’ (a fruitful career in journalism or the history-writing of labour-politics) to which subjects should orient themselves, but other, prevaricating, ‘useless’ activities. Following the narrator’s biographical-textual strategy, Orlando looks ‘left [and] right’, ‘enticed by flowers’ – avoiding being ‘swept along’ into ‘the matur[ity] […] which is striven for everywhere’. [65] Orlando’s queer refusal to commit to any form of lived narrative sees him turn to reading, which so obsesses him that he neglects ‘the slaughtering of the cattle or the harvesting of the wheat’ – seasonal activities dependent on timeliness and a teleological end to ‘world-process[es]’. In refusing these symbols of timeliness, Orlando substitutes fruitful, futural productivity for ‘read[ing] often six hours into the night’ – which raises an implicit suspicion of the ‘futurity’s unquestioned value’ and the responsible maturation of the subject within and along it. [66]

This ‘irregular life’ leaves Orlando feeling as though he has been ‘travelling for hundreds of years’, and this monumental ‘tarrying’ is rendered spatially when Orlando joins with the band of Turkish gypsies. [67] Orlando revels in ‘the pleasure of having no documents to seal or sign, flourishes to make, no calls to pay’, transported back to a youthful temporal space which refuses Nietzsche’s ‘world-processes’ in favour of an itinerant journeying without a purpose, destination, or teleological end.[68] Orlando changes into a woman in the midst of her time with this band ‘gypsies’ who are not on a ‘designated schedule’, but what Agamben terms ‘turned-towards-nothingness’: in motion without ‘heading’ somewhere.[69] The moment of queer being par excellence – Orlando’s abrupt switch from man to woman – is coupled with a futureless wandering which makes a mockery of purposeful movement either through time or space. Queerness here is not simply a sexual indeterminacy but an indeterminacy in relation to time, space, maturity, fruitfulness, and the teleological life-narratives legitimated by Victorian biography.

Though the novel does track Orlando’s increasing age at a sort of tectonic rate, the protagonist remains youthful until the end: just as he did as a boy, Orlando ‘fling[s] herself on her elbow beneath a tree’.[70] Indeed, to the tactic of ‘looking left and right’ we may add looking backwards as an obvious refusal of futural logics: ‘she turned back to the first page and read the date, 1586, written in her own boyish hand. She had been working at it for close on three hundred years now’.[71] This aesthetic prevarication (the three-century old palimpsest) couples with Orlando’s indeterminate morphology (‘her own boyish hand’), linking queerness inextricably to ‘[im]proper’ temporization. Orlando is engaged in a queer navigation of time, making use of a strategy of ‘prevarication’ and (figuratively) ‘looking left [and] right’ in order to refuse what Nietzsche calls the ‘world-process[es]’ governed by the logics of productive futurity.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

If Orlando’s biographical narrative is figuratively ‘enticed by flowers’, Dorian Gray powerfully literalises an obsession with the floral. The novel begins:

the studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of lilac, or the more delicious perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.[72]

Throughout the novel, Gray is linked to flowers, signalling not only a deeply sensuous personality, but a decadent mode of living in the moment: ‘Henry […] found Dorian Gray burying his face in the great cool lilac blossoms, feverishly drinking in their perfume as if it had been wine’.[73] Gray’s prevarication, like Orlando’s, involves a deep, yet changeable, aestheticism:

Mysticism [..] moved him for a season, […]. And so he would now study perfumes […] At another time he devoted himself entirely to music […]. On another occasion he took up the study of Jewels […] Then he turned his attention to embroideries.[74]

Here, Gray’s itinerant ‘journey’ through different aesthetic ‘devot[ions]’ matches not only Orlando’s love of literature, but the way in which Woolf’s hero also adopts many roles:

the young man who fell in love with Sasha; […] the Courtier; […] the Gypsy; the Fine Lady; the Hermit; the girl in love with life; the Patroness of letters; […] the […] gyps[y],[75]

all of whom are ‘individuals [who] do not carry forward any kind of process’. Narrowly conceived, both are engaged in what Sinfield might term ‘idleless’ or an ‘insouciance’ attitude to life.[76] Yet, in my way of thinking, both are engaged in a queer prevarication which resits equipmental futurity in favour of a being which is, as Agamben prescribes, ‘turned-toward-nothingness’. Gray’s perfect, eternal youthfulness, however violently aborted, provides a model of lived experience not just for Henry’s New Hedonism, but for Nietzsche, who abhors maturation and insists that we attain to youthful ‘individuals [who] do not carry forward any kind of process’. Wilde performs his own narrative prevarication, as the sheer length of the ‘stories’ of jewels or fantastic ‘vestments’ the narrator recounts serve no plot-driving purpose – they are mere lists of historical figures and their sumptuous reported wealth.[77] Gray is largely absent from these long, descriptive lists. Wilde’s narrator digresses from the plot of the novel to revel in a ‘decadent’ aestheticism which spurns the idea of the useful, the fruitful and the productive and celebrates the luxurious, beautiful and, by implication, useless, whether that is Gray’s use of time – ‘for a whole year, he sought to accumulate the most exquisite specimens he could find of textile and embroidered work’ – or the actual objects given Wilde’s ‘tarry[ing]’, digressive, ekphrastic treatment.[78]

Gray’s ‘rose-red youth and […] rose-white boyhood’ offers a model of queer living, rendered fantastically, which refuses age, maturation and an acquiescence to what Nietzsche calls the ‘world-process’ and Lord Henry terms – sounding remarkably Nietzschean – ‘the false ideals of our age’.[79] Gray defines his strategy for being in the world as:

a new hedonism that re-create[s] life […] yet […] never accept[s] any theory of system that would involve the sacrifice of any passionate mode of experience. Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience.[80]

This ‘re-create[d]’ mode of living offers to spurn productivity and future-driven utility (‘the fruits of experience’) in favour of a prevaricating celebration of contemporaneous ‘experience itself’. What Wilde’s novel offers is a fantastic vision of a subject who overturns the ‘terrible warning of [youth’s] brevity’ and ‘the false ideals of [the] age’ and installs in its place a radical, timeless, queer-temporal youth. This queer life trajectory, anticipating Freeman’s ‘prevarication’, pushes against chrononormativity in ways remarkably parallel to Woolf’s seemingly immortal trans-queer aesthete Orlando. Not only does Wilde’s narrator, like Woolf, become ‘enticed by flowers’, refusing future-driven narrative, so too does Wilde’s protagonist, like Orlando, assert a prevaricating, non-committal queer lifestyle over a normative, useful trajectory.

Conclusion: Queer Afuturity as Reparative

I have developed a theory of normative and queer temporalities to show how queerness is founded not only on the queer signifiers Sinfield identifies – ‘immorality, luxury, insouciance, decadence and aestheticism’ – but on a specifically queer relation to time. Muñoz claims that his utopianism ‘is meant to serve as something of a flight plan for a collective political becoming’, but ‘chrononormativity’ is exactly that: a futural ‘flight plan’ which charts for modern subjects a course of normative, fruitful, maturation. I have shown how Muñoz’s theory is based on a flawed understanding of Heideggerian philosophy, because a truly ‘unbounded’ ontology would reject the very ‘equipmental’ being Heidegger attacks – and the utopianism Muñoz mistakenly celebrates. Other attempts to counter futurity and theorise queer temporality have foundered: Edelman, despite highlighting the embeddedness of the logic and power of futurity in social life, offers no viable ‘queer resistance’, whilst McCallum’s and Tuhkanen’s tactics of refusing the female ‘body-clock’ offers too narrow a perspective to strategize a wider queer resistance. I have gone further, identifying aberrant and divergent categories and embodiments such as Heidegger’s and Agamben’s being ‘turned-toward-nothingness’, Nietzsche’s youth, and Wilde’s and Woolf’s prevaricating, ‘useless’ protagonists. Whilst the imagined queer trajectories of Orlando and Gray may be fantastic, they nevertheless invoke the possibility of ‘living aslant’ in ways which reject ‘modernity’s standard beat’. [81] The imaginative renderings of queer life-trajectories in Dorian Gray and Orlando are at once impossible, and genuinely reparative, offering, as Freeman says, ‘glimpses of an otherwise-being’, a queer temporal practice which both illuminates and offers a way of thinking and being otherwise to normative, futural temporality.[82]


Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor of New Critique.


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Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (London: University of Chicago Press, 1980)

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York, New York University Press, 2005)

Hart-Davis, Rupert. (ed.) The Letters of Oscar Wilde (London: Hart-Davis, 1962)

Heidegger, Martin. (trans.) Hofstadter, Albert. ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ in Kul-Want, Christopher. (ed.) Philosophers on Art From Kant to the Postmodernists: A Critical Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), pp.118-148

Heidegger, Martin. (trans.) Lovitt, William. The Question Concerning Technology (New York: Harper & Row, 1977)

Macquarrie, John. and Robinson, Edward. Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962)

McBean, Sam. Feminism’s Queer Temporalities (London: Routledge, 2016)

McCallum, E.L and Tuhkanen, Mikko. (ed.) Queer Times, Queer Becomings (New York: State University of New York Press, 2011)

Michael Patrick Gillespie (ed.) Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Norton, 2007)

Miller, Elaine P. ‘Harnessing Dionysus: Nietzsche on Rhythm, Time & Restraint’ in, Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 17 (1999), pp.1-32

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009)

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Hollingdale, R.J. (trans.) & Breazeale, Daniel. (ed.) Untimely Meditations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Kauffmann, Walter. (trans.) ‘Third Essay’, (§3) The Genealogy of Morals (London: Vintage, 1989)

Sinfield, Alan. The Wilde Century: Oscar Wilde, Effeminacy and the Queer Moment (New York: Columbia, 1994)

Walter, Ryan Lee. Queer Temporalities in Gay Male Representation: Tragedy, Normativity & Futurity (London: Routledge, 2010)

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography (London: Penguin, 2000)

Warner, Michael. (ed.), Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)


[1] Alan Sinfield, who I discuss in detail later, identifies these qualities – crystallized by/in Wilde himself – as characteristic of modern queerness. Alan Sinfield, ‘Queer Thinking’ in, The Wilde Century: Oscar Wilde, Effeminacy and the Queer Moment (New York: Columbia, 1994) pp.1-21, p.3

[2] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p.3; p.39

[3]José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009). Muñoz’s text has been cited almost 800 times, in publications as diverse as Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendle (ed.), Keywords for American Cultural Studies (London: NYU Press, 2014), p.268; and Jafari Allen, ¡Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-making in Cuba (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011) p.22;p.93;p.195. [Source: Google Scholar Citations Index <https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?cites=3584436651459164814&as_sdt=2005&sciodt=1,5&hl=en> accessed 20/04/16]

[4] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (London: Duke University Press, 2004), p.2

[5] Freeman, Time Binds, p.171

[6] For example, the collected conference debates from: Robert L. Caserio, Lee Edelman, Judith Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz and Tim Dean, ‘The Anti-Social Thesis in Queer Theory’ PMLA, 21 (2006), pp.819-828 contain no definitions for the terms ‘queer’ or ‘queerness’ despite those terms being employed (a combined) one hundred times throughout.

[7] Michael Warner, ‘Introduction’ in, Michael Warner (ed.), Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p.xxxvi

[8] The idea of interpellation comes from Louis Althusser, who describes the way in which ideology ensures the acquiescence of subjects by calling out to and offering them seemingly ‘obvious’ meanings, representations and narratives of the ‘social totality’. In my analysis normative temporality, which offers subjects a sanctioned mode of living in relation to time, roughly maps onto the way in which ideology offers a sanctioned understanding of, and mode of living in, the social totality. See: Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, (trans.) Ben Brewster, (London: New Left Books, 1971), pp.85-127

[9] Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, p.1

[10] Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, p.12

[11] Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, p.32

[12] William Lovitt (trans.) Martin Heidegger, ‘The Turning’ in The Question Concerning Technology (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp.36-53, p.48

[13] Heidegger, ‘The Turning’, p.48

[14] Albert Hofstadter (trans.) Martin Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ in Christopher Kul-Want (ed.) Philosophers on Art From Kant to the Postmodernists: A Critical Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), pp.118-148, p.138

[15] John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (trans.) Martin Heidegger, ‘Exposition of the Task of a Preparatory Analysis of Dasein’, in Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), pp.67-77, p.68.

[16] Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: NYU Press, 2005), p.1

[17] Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, p.22

[18] Georgia Albert (trans.) Giorgio Agamben, ‘Privation Is Like a Face’ in Christopher Kul-Want (ed) Philosophers on Art From Kant to the Postmodernists: A Critical Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), pp.250-258, p.256

[19] Agamben, p.258

[20] Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, p.25

[21] E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, ‘Becoming Unbecoming: Untimely Meditations’, in E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen (ed.) Queer Times, Queer Becomings (New York: State University of New York Press, 2011), pp.1-25, p.5

[22] Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, p.2

[23] Edelman, No Future p.2

[24] Edelman, No Future, p.2

[25] Edelman, No Future, p.3

[26] Edelman, No Future, p.4

[27] Edelman, No Future, p.4

[28] Freeman, Time Binds, p.3; p.39

[29] Freeman, Time Binds, p.4

[30] Agamben, ‘Privation Is Like a Face’, p.258

[31] Freeman, Time Binds, p.xv

[32] Freeman, Time Binds, p.xvi-xvii

[33] In addition to the critics I cite here dealing with queer time, there have been many recent studies on the topic published by mainstream academic publishers, see: Jamie M. Carr, Queer Times: Christopher Isherwood’s Modernity (London: Routledge, 2006); Ryan Lee Walter, Queer Temporalities in Gay Male Representation: Tragedy, Normativity & Futurity (London: Routledge, 2010); Sam McBean, Feminism’s Queer Temporalities (London: Routledge, 2016)

[34] Elaine P. Miller, ‘Harnessing Dionysus: Nietzsche on Rhythm, Time & Restraint’ in, Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 17 (1999), pp.1-32

[35] Miller, ‘Harnessing Dionysus’, p.22; p.3

[36] R.J Hollingdale (trans.) & Daniel Breazeale (ed.) Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.111

[37] Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, p.111

[38] Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, p.107. Nietzsche stresses the importance of youth throughout the text, with ‘youth’ or ‘young’ appearing over ninety times.

[39] We might think of Hegelian ‘Geist’ as anchoring the ‘designated schedule’ of history.

[40] Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, p.115

[41] Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, p.115

[42] Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, p.111 [emphasis mine]

[43] OED Online: ‘contemporaneous’

[44] OED Online: ‘prevaricate’

[45] Alan Sinfield, ‘Queer Thinking’ in, The Wilde Century: Oscar Wilde, Effeminacy and the Queer Moment (New York: Columbia, 1994) pp.1-21, p.1;p.21; Rupert Hart-Davis (ed.) The Letters of Oscar Wilde (London: Hart-Davis, 1962), p.352

[46] Sinfield, ‘Queer Thinking’, p.3

[47] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.261;p.271;p.270;

[48] Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography (London: Penguin, 2000), p.14; p.45; p.67; p,103; Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.206; p.209; p.230; p.235; p.258

[49] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.224; Woolf, Orlando, p.23

[50] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.237

[51] The idea of ‘self-fashioning’ comes from Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (London: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p.1

[52] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.258-259

[53] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.274

[54] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.261;p.271;p.270; Woolf, Orlando, p.21

[55] Woolf, Orlando, p.89

[56] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.278

[57] Sinfield, ‘Queer Thinking’, p.3

[58] Freeman, Time Binds, p.171

[59] Woolf, Orlando, p.47

[60] David Amigoni, Victorian Biography: Intellectuals and the Ordering of Discourse (London: Routledge, 2014) p.1

[61] ‘Preface’ in Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography (London: Penguin, 2000), pp.5-6, p.6

[62] Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, p.111; Woolf, Orlando, p.47

[63] Woolf, Orlando, p.22

[64] Woolf, Orlando, p.199

[65] Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, p.115

[66] Edelman, No Future, p.4

[67] Woolf, Orlando, p.206; p.162

[68] Woolf, Orlando, p.99

[69] Agamben, ‘Privation is like a Face’, p.258

[70] Woolf, Orlando, p.197

[71] Woolf, Orlando, p.163

[72] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.185

[73] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.201

[74] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.264-270

[75] Woolf, Orlando, p.213

[76] Sinfield, ‘Queer Thinking’, p.3

[77] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.264-270, p.269

[78] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.269

[79] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.202. Henry echoes Nietzsche’s attack on ‘sham idealism’ and ‘the forgery in ideals’: Walter Kauffmann (trans.) Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Third Essay’, (§3) The Genealogy of Morals (London: Vintage, 1989), p.159

[80] Wilde, Dorian Gray, p.263

[81] Freeman, Time Binds, p.171

[82] Freeman, Time Binds, p.xix

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