Problems of Knowledge

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot in writing about the history of queer musicology is definitions. Not necessarily what counts as “queer” or “musicological” when it comes to literature (both topics that themselves could and do take up multiple dense theoretical works). But what to do with the question of how historical authors consciously positioned themselves and their work? With Rosa Newmarch, for instance, I spend a fair amount of time talking about her (and her contemporaries’) strategic uses of musical gossip to talk around taboo or tantalizing subjects that otherwise might go largely unstated. While Vernon Lee’s writings on music perception do not overtly focus on gender or what we might consider a feminist aesthetic lens, they are replete with examples of both the author and her subjects engaging with how their identity and experiences affect their listening experiences. That said, I am also aware of some of the problems with seeking a direct 1:1 comparison between author (or authorial persona) and research subject.

But sometimes, authors make it extremely easy. Prime-Stevenson, for all that his use of pseudonyms and self publishing could serve to obscure his literary activities, deeply valued having his work recognized and reviewed by experts in musicology and sexology. He routinely send copies of his works to academic journals, knowing full well that his work would not be generally available or easily accessible even to the select readership of a specialist publication

A fascinating insight into Prime-Stevenson’s views on queer subtext in literature and other arts–including his own short stories!–can be found in the pages of the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (Yearbook (or Annual) for Sexual Intermediates), published by pioneering sexologist and LGBTQ+ activist Magnus Hirschfeld. In addition to articles on various topics on what we would today consider queer history, psychology and sociology, literary studies, and political issues, the Jahrbuch also featured an extensive annotated bibliography on current writings related to homosexuality.

Someone (almost Prime-Stevenson himself) submitted entries on various works by Prime-Stevenson published prior to his “overtly” sexological works Imre and The Intersexes. The note for “Aquae multi non–,” here listed under the English title “Many Waters” goes as follows:

Prime-Stevenson E. Irenaeus. Many Waters. (New York, The Christian Union, 1885 [sic –actually published in 1883])
A deeply Uranian tale of passionate feeling between two musicians, both Uranians, under which spell the younger is willing to sacrifice his own reputation for the other as well as to forgive a great betrayal.

(translation mine; Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen 3 (1901), 516).

To have an author explicitly spell out the queer meaning in his work is certainly not typical. Prime-Stevenson himself was certainly aware of how queer reading (and listening!) practices relied upon interpretation and the recognition of shared literary allusions. (Both his later fiction and nonfiction are full of such references, some of which are nearly incomprehensible to the reader in 2023.)

I’m also struck by the fact that this entry (which appeared alongside similar comments about Prime-Stevenson’s short story “A Great Patience” and novel Left to Themselves/Philip and Gerard) appeared prior to Prime-Stevenson’s adoption of the “Mayne” pseudonym and “official” book-length forays into the sexological literature.

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