Ouida’s Beautiful Nightmare: When Lolita, Steampunk, and Afrofuturism converge in Neo-Victorian Aestheticism
The Ghost Dressed in Lace and Leather
Ouida’s ghost is dwelling today among the living, and it is likely that her spirit is simultaneously consumed with fascination and repulsion. By Ouida’s standards, our contemporary society is a world vulgar and defiled. She wasn’t shy in expressing her disappointment regarding what she perceived as civil society in decline. In an essay titled “Vulgarity” (1895), Ouida warned, “Exaggeration of our own value is one of the most offensive of all forms of vulgarity, and science has much to answer for in its present pompous and sycophantic attitude before the excellence and importance of humanity” (336). Imagine how she would look upon a generation that worships celebrity culture and perpetually indulges in broadcasting the private life on social media. I think we can assume that Ouida would find the “selfie” the epitome of everything wrong with the age. Also, paramount among her concerns was the degradation of the world’s natural and artistic beauty. In “The Ugliness of Modern Life” (1900) she links the two in no uncertain terms:
"The loss of beauty from the world is generally regarded as the purely sentimental grievance of imaginative persons; but it is not so; it is a loss which must impress its vacuity fatally on the human mind and character. It tends, more than any other loss, to produce that apathy, despondency and cynical indifference which are so largely characteristic of the modern temper." (212)
Indeed, much of the destruction associated with the Second Industrial Revolution has already wrought its havoc upon the globe. Gratefully, climate change aside, at least in the “developed world” we dwell in an aftermath that is instead defined by comparative environmental restoration.
As we settle into the Anthropocene, living in Ouida’s nightmare isn’t exactly like what the author would have anticipated. Her article “Watchman, What of the Night?” (1905), published in The Fortnightly Review, prophesized a dystopian and rather xenophobic vision of the future. It is a future where the Japanese would rise alongside an East Asian tide; that is, they would rise after being infected with the insatiable hunger for war that had, by that point, consumed the “white races” of her age. In her anti-imperialist angst, she cautioned that this tide would one day overpower a lesser populated European civilization leaving only devastation and a mutual cultural genocide in its wake (858). Anticipating Samuel Huntington’s theory of civilizational clash, Ouida was skeptical of militarizing people that she felt were superior in many talents to that of the Europeans (857-859). She questioned the argument that there could be peaceful geographically-situated coexistence between East and West without the eventual dominance of the one, the Japanese, over the other, the European (858).
I don’t think Ouida could have imagined that less than a century after her death, Japan would come to embrace her work far more than Europe or the United States. She couldn’t possibly have predicted that just one of her stories, A Dog of Flanders (1872), would become standard primary school reading in so many Japanese classrooms. Moreover, she would have been shocked to discover that the Japanophiles of the West could join forces with the Anglophiles of the East and shape a Neo-Victorian aesthetic that compliments the individuality of both. A cultural reciprocity has been revealed that transcends the scenario of mutual termination sketched out in her invective against military conquest. Of course, I am referring to the Japanese fashion trend known as “Lolita.” Launched in the late 1980s, Lolita broadly refers to a Japanese fashion subculture that fuses elements of the Western Goth scene with girlish accents of “kawaii” (i.e. cuteness). The term’s deeper origins have not been fully explored, but, due to the aesthetic references to feminine immaturity (an essential characteristic of Ouida’s “angel women”), it has been linked to the Nabokov’s novel of the same name. As a style, Lolita—with its delicate lace, pastels, and embroideries—is elegant, graceful, and soft. Lolita conveys no signs of the aesthetic corruption that Ouida feared. Japanese culture is thriving, and Japan has held on to its traditions throughout years of globalization and technological development. The Lolita style is quintessentially Japanese, and it is only ornamented by a Western exterior. That Western exterior, regardless of its superficiality, is rooted in Neo-Victorianism.
Neo-Victorianism is the glue that binds the various offshoots of Lolita to those of the Steampunk movement. They exhibit performative fashions characterized by phantasmagoric cosplay. Appreciating the delicate beauty of Lolita is one thing, but what exactly could drive contemporary Ouida scholars and Ouidaites to something like Steampunk? It is a contemporary phenomenon that on its surface seems profoundly antithetical to Ouida’s vision of an ideal world. After all, Ouida despised much of late nineteenth century fashion and abhorred anything industrial (“On the Art of Dress”). The novelette Toxin (1895) stands as the clearest exposition of this primordial adversity between science and artistic beauty from the author. In this singular offering of a narrative that combines elements of romance, science fiction, and horror, we are faced with a situation that has technological advancement encroaching upon physical beauty in the most sinister and maniacal of terms. Murder is the tragic result of the progression. Consequently, the story’s antagonist, Dr. Damer, emerges as the book’s reigning symbol for all that is horrid in the rise of science and industry. Strangely enough, this character would be well-suited for Steampunk’s cosplay. Cosplay would also be perfect for her famous heroine, Cigarette, the seasoned Vivandière outfitted in war-torn military garb. Steampunk can be all canvas, leather, and metal.
The response to the contradiction of the Steampunk Ouidaite must reside, first and foremost, in the author’s devotion to art and genius. It must reside in the beauty of her “word pictures.” It is an intermingling of beauty, art, and genius that I would argue, lives in every attempt that Steampunk makes to take the raw “vulgarity” of industrial society and convert its brutality into something beautiful. It is an afterlife for craftsmanship that would have left Ouida, and for that matter, Morris and Ruskin at an uncharacteristic loss for words. The ornamentation of Steampunk is as sophisticated as an architectural title page. It adorns the body with an alternative vision for fusing humans with machines—a vison aesthetically divergent from habitually progressive cyberization. Scholars of both Steampunk and Sensationalism, like Helena Esser or Lisa Hager, are likely to comprehend this strange conundrum when approaching Ouida’s fiction. As Hager (2016) noted, we find that “so much of steampunk is about playing with boundaries between the textual and the visual.” Steam drifts and blurs our vision of the train as it approaches our stop. It is heavy in the lungs as it hangs in the air.
The expressive modalities of contemporary Ouida fandom are in close alignment with both Lolita and Steampunk. That isn’t to say that these new modalities are no longer expressed in the traditional modes of fan culture such as book collecting, book clubs, and review. Fundamentally, I am a book person, and as a special collections librarian and bibliographer I can see the intrinsic value of these traditions. It is only to acknowledge that this fandom is also expressed in emergent, nontraditional modes like tweets, online discussion boards, Pinterest boards, cosplay, figurines, plush toys, and video games. In a digitally-mediated renaissance of fan culture, Ouida’s works can achieve a new following and relevance for millennials and future postmillennial generations.
It is with this ambition in mind that Andrew King’s (2015) notion of “impure researches” really begins to make sense. Undoubtedly among the most knowledgeable Ouida scholars in the field, King recognizes that impurities in marketing and textual reception have had an impact on our perceptions of Ouida’s works throughout the longer history of her readership. He thoughtfully concedes that “there is no pure first text that we can access, however we might seek to wash our idea of a text clean from its afterlives” (378). At the same time, through laborious textual and material analysis, he arrives at an interpretation of A Dog of Flanders which is likely to be closest to the author’s original intent. The result of the process showed that a work commonly perceived to be a children’s story was initially meant to be read as a protest piece. The excavational procedure, however, conducted by King in his analysis of the text was never intended to discredit what the story has become in its consumer-based re-imaginings. The research was conducted to illustrate our susceptibility to interpretative “blind spots” when halted in the more tangible stages of what he describes as “aesthesis,” or drawing pleasure from the epidermal sensations involved with the reading of a text. The notion helps us to fully appreciate the larger discourse on Ouida’s evolving status in the realm of literary scholarship. All the same, those pure hearted fans with their “impure researches” born out of a place of consumptive desire have always and should continue to always have a seat at the table in this discussion.
Afrofuturism bites “the Dust”
“Sunshine was disquieted, like a brood of partridges at the sight of a pointer's nose among the turnips.” (Ouida 30)
The above selection comes from Ouida’s “Randolph Gordon” of Randolph Gordon and Other Stories (1867). I have yet to read an author who can consistently compose such powerful similes. It is one of the reasons I derive such immense enjoyment from reading her works. I am caught in an uninterrupted state of mental aesthesis with every turn of the page. I love the language of her storytelling, the descriptions, the settings, the style, the plots, the characters, the dialog; I love the arcs and the twists of her stories. Yet, to sustain such adoration, at times one must awake themselves from the seductive aesthesis and confront those aspects in the writing which one does not love. One must face the varying degrees of Ouida’s notorious sexism, for instance, head on. Likewise, one must recognize the racially offensive language and unflattering representation peppered in her writings with finely honed sensibilities and contextual discernment. This imperative is particularly essential when approaching works from the early sensation fiction period of her career. Unfortunately, as a Black consumer of Victorian literature, I do not enjoy the luxury of being able to read these works without constantly thinking about the question of race. Now, it is true that anachronistic readings of Victorian literature will reveal some of our greatest literary figures to be lacking in terms of their ability to live up to our current standards of cultural sensitivity. What Frederick Douglass and Paul Laurence Dunbar saw as virtually miraculous in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is for the contemporary reader, a novel rife with African American caricature and negative racial stereotypes. However, since anachronistic readings cannot offer redemption and are epistemologically impotent in their ability to provide us with excusal, perhaps they still can offer a way forward.
One recurring example of this pathway emerges in the frequency with which Ouida privileges Eurocentric standards of physical beauty over others. This habit of hers was likely to have been rooted in a reflexive desire to be viewed by her contemporaries in the same, positive light. Yet, in one of the most striking manifestations of this trope, we find that, somewhat atypical for her time, Ouida does not always equate her model for physical beauty with her model of moral or “spiritual” beauty. The dynamic unfolds in her novel Signa (1875), which has the darker-hued Palma resolutely holding on to a moral center while the fair and enchanting sister, Gemma, (later ironically called the “Innocence of Paris”) descends deeper and deeper into the corruptions of personal vanity. Present day readers might not be as hard-pressed as previous generations to sympathize with the latter. I, on the other hand, found myself rooting for Palma. This interpretation is indicative of an alternative approach to reading Ouida’s fiction; again, one that is informed by Neo-Victorian modalities of reception. In Punking the Past (2016), Esser affirms that “Steampunk fiction can feature and foreground marginalized identities, imagine hopeful alternatives or call into question Victorian narratives about race, age, or gender and do so without having to answer for its anachronisms.” I would extend this definition, however, to encompass not only the production and consumption of neo-historical fiction but also re-readings of classic Victorian literature in similar terms. Doing so enables me to read novels such as Puck (1870) and Moths (1880) as narratives of bondage and, in some respects, liberation. This divergent rendering of hermeneutical [re]interpretation is partly the reason that Folle Farine (1871) arose to become my favorite novel from any writer, living or deceased. I’m able to mentally transform the protagonist’s mixed Romani and French heritage into a performative instantiation of blackness. Admittedly, it is an understanding of blackness that hinges upon the various ways it has been constructed in the Western mind (as Ouida, for example, deals with a similar conflation of socially constructed blackness in A House Party, published more than a decade later in 1887). Consider the following passage in which the heroine of the story is subjected to the cruel blows of her overseer:
"He had ever used her as the Greeks the Helots; he always beat her when she was in fault to teach her to be faultless, and when without offense beat her to remind her that she was the offspring of humiliation and a slave."
"He took, as he had taken in an earlier time, a thick rope which lay coiled upon the turf ready for the binding of some straying boughs; and struck her with it, slowly. His arm had lost somewhat of its strength, and his power was unequal to his will. Still rage for the loss of his copper pieces and the sense that she had discovered the fraudulent intention of his small knavery lent force to his feebleness; as the scourge whistled through the air and descended on her shoulders it left bruised swollen marks to stamp its passage, and curling, adder-like, bit and drew blood." (117-118)
The humiliation that Folle Farine must bear is at once sexually and racially tinged. The subnarrative of sexual exploitation in this story has been investigated in the existing literary scholarship (Schroeder and Holt 105). But when confronting the question of race in the beating, I can personally feel the alchemy of poignancy and rage melding in my emotional crucible when reading scenes such as the one described above. Reading the novel in its entirety in this way allows one to discover a compelling case for the ideals of liberation in the narrative, even if that liberation can only be realized in the character’s tragic death.
Granting that my reading of this character does not exactly brand her in the mold of the “tragic mulatto,” my embrace of the author’s works is closely tied to Trey Ellis’s (1989) articulation of the “cultural mulatto” (233-236). My life as a reader is literally inseparable from my experience as a person of color. Like Afro-Punk, my unique version of Ouida fandom is fashioned by a New Black Aesthetic. In tracing out the parameters of the New Black Aesthetic, Ellis correctly identifies the rationale for a cultural mixing that underscores the very existence of Afro-Punk. Afro-Punk is anathema to intraracial constructs of blackness that are affronted when a Black person living in the English-speaking world passionately admires the works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen or takes pleasure in listening to the music of David Bowie or watching Dr. Who on television. There are feelings of guilt that come with the experience of intraracial shaming, all on the account of the “whiteness” of these cultural figures. Versions of Black performativity in this likeness concomitantly assert the inverse and believe that White fans of Alice Walker, John Coltrane, Richard Pryor, or Kendrick Lamar should be subjected to a similar mix of suspicion and scrutiny. What it would mean, then, if my favorite author had to be a person of color purely on the basis that I identify as such? It’s a question that lies at the heart of the hypothetical. One would be mistaken to suppose that I am simply unaware of all the injustice and collective trauma that my people have had to suffer trying to coexist in a society dominated by white supremacy. And it isn’t that I have failed to comprehend that works created by people who have personally suffered from this experience are relevant to me in ways that others are inherently incapable of being. Yet, the fact that Ouida’s novels have touched me most profoundly does not in any way insinuate that I cannot also revere and deeply engage with the works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Langston Hughes, Joel Augustus Rogers, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, and Tupac Shakur. I have identified with a wide range of African American voices my entire life. My own existence is an affirmation of both Black and American cultures. A semantic decoupling of the terms chiefly serves a means of connecting to other Diasporic communities transnationally, for we are not a monolithic people. There must be similar impulses that allow for Arab Muslims in K-Pop fan culture, Anglo American consumers of telanovelas, Black manga fanatics, and Japanese Hip Hop graffiti artists. Enter Afrofuturism.
Martine Syms’s Mundane Afrofuturism, a recent development in the discourse most helpful to my discussion, reconfigures the quasi-utopianism of mid-to-late twentieth century Afrofuturism to an Afrofuturistic vision that willfully acknowledges a growing mood of Afro-pessimism. This pessimistic mood has swept through our culture during the current era of Black Lives Matter. To get a handle on the African American understanding of Afro-pessimism, one looks no further than Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015). The book is a distressingly honest chronicle that depicts how the “American Dream” is predicated upon the desecration of Black bodies in the most blatant and coarsest terms. Being “awake” to this bleak reality, Mundane Afrofuturism seeks to bring the philosophy of a utopic “outer space” Afrofuturist teleology back down to Earth. One tenet of Mundane Afrofuturism, however, is contrastingly optimistic. It entices us with the “electric feeling that Mundane Afrofuturism is the ultimate laboratory for worldbuilding outside of imperialist, capitalist, white patriarchy” (Syms, “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto”). This tenet grafts on to twenty-first century re-readings of Ouida’s works with relative ease. Another tenet, one which affirms a “sense that the rituals and inconsistencies of daily life are compelling, dynamic, and utterly strange,” is just as digestible. But it is the committed humanitarianism and steadfastly anti-imperialist sentiments woven throughout Ouida’s novels that most effectively guides the present day Ouidaite of color to more of a comfortable space from which they can extract the pure exuberance of the author’s aesthetic lexicon. It is an ethical foundation, I think, that is most eloquently articulated in her polemical essay, English Imperialism (1900).
Perhaps there are similar routes through cognitive dissonance explored by Janeites of color in their love for the works of Austen. But the fact remains that by nineteenth century standards, Ouida herself would have been looked upon as an immigrant woman writer of mixed ethnicity. It is an aspect of her complex identity that is regularly reflected in her novels. To Ouida, in fact, this notion of identity is one that inexorably amalgamates both with the socio-economics factors of class and the aristocratic manner of “breeding.” In her novel Syrlin (1890), for example, the protagonist is an international celebrity of Afro-Arab and French descent. He was bred with high morals and possessed inner-genius, but his social status as a playwright and performer, in the end, bars him from ever truly penetrating high “society.” With that, other tenets of Mundane Afrofuturism—those that seek to expurgate the deleterious impact of caricature without a conscious historical revisionism—are likely to be more difficult to integrate into the receptive framework of a self-declared Ouidaite of color. Her work, like many others of her time, does not escape a recurrent compulsion to perpetuate commonly held racial misconceptions and ethnic stereotypes.
The solution, then, to overcome the boundaries of cognitive dissonance in this regard must reside in the Neo-Victorian potential for a “subcultural hermeneutics” (Voigts-Virchow 111). Interpretation under such parameters is atemporal; it exists as a “third space” between the dichotomy of a fixed historicism and a fluid modernity (112-113). The idea, then, that Ouida’s fiction has helped in shaping the social construction of both Black and White identities over time while concurrently challenging the delineations of these perceived psychophysiological constructs is an idea that, in my opinion, needs greater investigation. Essentially, we are dealing with narratological explorations of ethnic and cultural hybridity. It is a current associated with a form of database logic that I believe runs throughout much of Afrofuturistic Hip Hop and Electronica (descendants of Afro-Punk). Artists like Aaron Jerome of SBTRKT, Marcel Everett of XXYYXX, and Harold Michael Simmons II, better known by his apropos stage name of FYÜTCH, are practically emblematic of this process of meaning making through a style of consumption and remixing that is aligned with the logic of the database. It is a logic, it should be recalled, that is stands in opposition to the grand narratives that lie beneath the receptive frameworks of previous generations (Azuma 34). The paradoxical complexity in Ouida’s approach to storytelling, in that case, is echoed in songs like Fyütch’s “Questions vs. Answers”:
People don't like you if you're perfect
You gotta be the right amount of worthless
Vulnerable and still searching
But still know who you are to a certain
Is a fine line a perfect balance
Things that confuse you make the most sense
Cuz it show you that life is just that complex…
There’s a juxtaposition of paradox (e.g. perfection/worthlessness, searching/certainty, confusion/sense making, etc.) embedded within every bar of the song. It is an aspect of searching out meaning in a way that predisposes the proponent of Afrofuturism for consumption of Ouida’s fiction utilizing a database logic, 0s and 1s. The complexity is further exhibited in a blurring of temporality that forms the narrative basis of one of Fyütch’s more recent music videos. In the video, we encounter the artist fully adorned in Neo-Victorian fashion. In essence, it is an example of Afrofuturism reversion to a Neo-Victorian aesthetic.
Those Dainty Knights of Core
The impulse that attracts feminists and queer theorists to Ouida’s work despite her sexist tendencies is the same force which draws in fans of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds; again, it is paradoxical complexity. For all the sexism in Ouida’s work, one can just as easily locate examples of her feminism. Even her biography can be viewed as an example of feminist resistance against Victorian era patriarchal dominance. More tellingly, her characters are famed for their ability to challenge time-honored gender norms. Her women can be strong, powerful, militaristic, and domineering. Her men can be gentle, nurturing, whimsical, wavering, and passive. Both genders can switch, or have seemingly conflicting aspects of their gender identities intertwined. It is this quality of the author’s paradoxical complexity, I think, more than any other which firmly situates her work within the Neo-Victorian aesthetic.
Neo-Victorianism itself is complex and multifaceted. It can refer to a body of literature that is “self-conscious” of its conversation with a traditionally Victorian referent, yet rearticulated to speak to the constructs of contemporary society. It can range from new ways to repackage cultural conservatism to a radical break from heteronormativity through a celebration of queer identities and Neo-Victorian Decadence. The hard leather of Steampunk and the soft lace of Sweet, Elegant, and Classical Lolita comprise the aesthetic spectrum of the larger phenomenon that I am attempting to elucidate in this discussion. Such dynamics are further evidenced by the Neo-Victorian Decadences Conference scheduled for September 2017, which is set to investigate new manifestations of Fin-de-siècle Decadence in everything from Japanese Manga to Decadent Steampunk.
The nascent subgenres of PC (Internet) Music that have been proliferating over the past three or four years incorporate many of the ostensibly disparate topics that I covered throughout the course of this post. At the summit of this rise are Nightcore (NXC) and Hyperpop. This new wave of electronic music, spearheaded by artists like KittyNxc, underd0g, and Fraxiom, remixes and repurposes the samples of earlier generations of electronica in fresh and imaginative ways. It is a sound that takes the melodies of Pop, the hypnotic pulse of Trance, the buoyancy of Happy Hardcore, chops of Breaks, and the deep bass of Dubstep and sets it all to a haunting J-Pop, chipmunk vocaloid. Artists in these genres, like Emma, Surati, and Fraxiom, are open and celebratory of queer identity. Likewise, figures such as Omniboi and Dj Sad Anime constitute a Neo-Dandy breed of Otaku who mix and compose Afrofuturist PC Music as it is represented in Future Funk and Future Bass. Sonically distant from the opera and baroque of Ouida’s musical landscape, PC Music has made up the soundtracks to which I have set many of my readings in Ouidiana, especially her three-decker novels. Even with the sense of isolationism conveyed in her anti-imperialist diatribes, I find that her novels are saturated with the multicultural, transnational, and cosmopolitan streams that are sonically embodied in the soundscapes of these various “underground” subcultures. Unbound by temporality, then, these forces come together in a beautiful nightmare where grand narratives disintegrate in the expressive modalities of fandom and database-driven narrative consumption.
Anderson, Reynaldo, and John Jennings. “Afrofutrism: The Digital Turn and the Visual Art of Kanye West.” The Cultural Impact of Kanye West, edited by Julius Bailey, pp. 29-44.
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Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Ellis, Trey. “New Black Aesthetic.” Callaloo, no. 38, Winter 1989, pp. 233-243. JSTOR, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=01612492%28198924%290%3A38%3C233%3ATNBA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-P. Accessed 9 June 2017.
Esser, Helena and Briony Wickes. “Punking the Past: The Steampunk Aesthetic.” Neo-Victorian Reviews, 17 Mar. 2017, https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2017/03/17/punking-the-past-the-steampunk-aesthetic/. Accessed 9 June 2017.
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Fyütch. “Question vs. Answers.” Philosophy of Love, Bandcamp, 2016, SoundCloud, https://soundcloud.com/fyutch/questionsanswers.
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---. Folle-farine. J.B. Lippincott, 1871.
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---. “Vulgarity.” Views and Opinions. Methuen, 1895, pp. 327-347..
---. “The Ugliness of Modern Life.” Critical Studies. T. Fisher Unwin, 1900, pp. 210-239.
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---. “On the Art of Dress.” Cosmopolitan, Sept. 1897, pp. 551-556.
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