Steele on Albert and Cardon, eds. (2022)

Albert, Nicole G., and Patrick Cardon, editors. Akademos, la première revue homosexuelle française1909: Mode d’emploi. Question de genre/GKC, 2022, pp. 502, ISBN 978-2-490454-05-1

Akademos: Mode d’emploi is a collection of articles exploring the context and impact of the short-lived literary and art review Akademos, called here the first “revue homosexuelle” in the French language. Akademos was founded by Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, a wealthy poet and novelist who fled Paris in 1903 after a scandal involving underage boys and pagan rituals to live on the isle of Capri with his lover Nino Cesarini, the youthful model for a number of photographers, painters, and sculptors in the first years of the twentieth century. A few years after Fersen’s retreat to Capri he returned to Paris to oversee the review, which appeared for a brief twelve issues in 1909. Its sumptuous format and prestigious contributors (Tailhade, Moréas, Colette, Marinetti) were intended to provide a framework for the gradual introduction of a justification for what Fersen called “l’autre amour.” 

The volume describes the publication history of the review and places it in the intellectual and political history of its time. If Fersen’s original idea was to reconnect with classical antiquity and its sunny acceptance of sexual variety, thus substituting a forward-looking neo-classicism for the overheated decadence of a previous generation, Akademos opened its pages to a variety of ideologies and movements. Articles in the collection explore the review’s relationship to futurism and anarchism, whose defense of individual freedom sometimes veered toward Nietzschean amorality, thus implicitly providing a post-Christian justification for the free expression of variant sexual tastes. This individualist or egoist approach to a defense of same-sex love, with its underlying elitismin distinction to the later twentieth-century discourse of equal rightsallowed for the open expression of misogyny and occasionally of racism (praise of Gobineau, for instance), and led some of the review’s contributors in later years to fascism or collaboration. The collection thus provides materials from the birth of same-sex liberation for a potential political critique of the gay male world it eventually spawned, although such a critique is only minimally presented here.

One of the greatest merits of the collection is its patient excavation of details about the lives and works of forgotten contributors to the review, many of whom seem to have been devotees of the Other Love, thus providing fruitful lines of future research into queer literary history. Most of these were men, but the collection also provides details about the few women who contributed to the journal, and the greater number of women reviewed in its pages, as well as important insights into the early lives of more famous writers who either contributed to or existed on the margins of the journal, notably Colette and Cocteau.  Although documented evidence of same-sex interest is often scanty for many of the lesser-known writers, the collection provides a model for a queer reading of ambiguous texts based on a careful attention to understated or veiled intimations which could usefully be applied elsewhere.

One danger in interpreting earlier texts is anachronism, a danger the collection does not always successfully avoid. The use of Anglo-American terms like “gay,” “gay friendly,” and “camp,” scattered throughout the collection, may hinder the work of understanding the journal in the context of its own time, and thus of apprehending the relationship of this earlier era to our own. The term the journal itself uses is “homosexuel,” notably in a pseudonymous article signed Guy Debrouze entitled rather ambiguously “Le préjugé contre les mœurs,” and given the fraught history of that term, more work should be done to understand what it meant here, as well as to understand the relationship between the lives and sensibilities of these writers and artists to our own. For instance, what is the relationship of Fersen’s interest in adolescents, mediated through references to Classical pederasty, to earlier and later expressions of same-sex desire, including our own time’s celebration of youthful beauty yet horror of child abuse? Are exaggerated visual representations of feminine decorative excess in the journal indeed related to the mid-twentieth-century phenomenon of camp and are they necessarily evidence of same-sex desire? Does same-sex activity in 1909 imply a singular identity at all, and if not, what are the roles and identities current in that period, and how did Akademos reflect or foster their development? It would be useful to specify more fully the social world in which these writers moved and interacted, which is largely undescribed in the volume apart from a few references to certain cafés and restaurants, private salons, public urinals, and open-air same-sex encounters. Exploring the relationship between coded revelations in elite literature and clandestine encounters within the urban fabric might help us further understand the nature and importance of Akademos.

Indeed, some of those relationships are already sketched out here, although the implications are often undeveloped.  For instance, the collection includes a wealth of materials concerning Raymond Laurent, a member of the journal’s editorial board who shot himself in the streets of Venice just before the journal appeared, apparently because of a failed love affair with a young American. The dossier includes among many other materials a newspaper report of the scandal, poems by Cocteau dedicated to the two men published in 1909 but not included in his complete works, and an account of Cocteau’s chance meeting with Laurent the night of the suicide in a spot used for same-sex encounters. It also includes Laurent’s posthumously published study of Oscar Wilde, which in highly abstract language defends the value of physical beauty in the development of individual consciousness yet never quite hints at any relationship between enjoyment of useless beauty and nonreproductive sexuality—a relationship, one suspects, which would have been luxuriantly displayed by an earlier decadent generation. After patient work in archives and old forgotten journals, documents are laid out for the reader, but it is largely left up to future researchers to theorize the relationships between mainstream literary history and its forgotten underground, between real-world sexual experience and high art, between the first tentative steps of homosexual openness in France and our own queer moment.

Akademos: Mode d’emploi is published by Question de genre/GKC, the publishing arm of GayKitschCamp, Association pour l’histoire LGBT, which has also published a new edition of the entire run of Akademos with critical apparatus, as well as a reprint of a novel, Les Fréquentations de Maurice: Mœurs de Londres, which first appeared as a serial in the journal. The novel recounts the adventures of a vain and effeminate young Frenchman in London whose generous lovers include an older society woman and a married man. All are highly recommended.

Robert O. Steele
The George Washington University