Pussies of Mass Destruction: The Queering of Violence in Victorian Literature and Contemporary Politics
In Richard Marsh’s 1897 thriller The Beetle, dandified scientist Sydney Atherton tests his WMD—Atherton’s Magic Gas, capable of instantly killing masses of well trained troops—on what he imagines is the cat of Paul Lessingham (MP and former diplomat to Egypt). This novel documents imperialism’s attempts to imagine as other the queer, the female, and the non-white—in order to rationalize its extermination or education of them. Yet, the ways in which it does so work both to troublingly justify this project as well as undermine it: violence directed at the non-normative only reveals the queer underpinnings of the dominant culture. A monstrous (and mesmeric) insect-like creature of ambiguous gender and of Egyptian origin, the Beetle— who regularly physically dominates, probes, and penetrates male characters—presumably dies in a massive train wreck; yet, the evidence (blotches of liquid that seem to be blood from "some creature of the cat species”) is inconclusive. Likewise, the novel seems unable to disconnect (as it wishes to) destruction of the female and the filthy from the homosocial/erotic relationships underwritten by those very abject categories. The sublimated homoerotic energies circulating between the male characters (diplomats, dandies, and scientists) continually return to the pursuit and/or destruction of the feminine or the nonhuman. The Beetle’s panic about the danger of the Other, the female, and the homoerotic renders it a consummately relevant text for understanding how these same anxieties circulate through our own era and culture. The current efforts by the US to subdue foreign nations in the name of freeing them, to demonize terrorism as the product of nonwestern fundamentalism, and to write equity for homosexuals and women out of the legal and cultural landscape all reflect the Beetle-like conservative quest to exterminate diversity and return to a sanitized, misremembered time of cultural purity.
Keywords: Victotian Literature, Twenty-First-Century Politics, Queer Theory, Imperialism, Gay and Lesbian Rights, Women's Rights, Violence
Dr. Dawn Vernooy-Epp
Assistant Professor, Department of English, Shippensburg University
Dr. W.C. Harris
Associate Professor, Department of English, Shippensburg University