Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Historicizing Romantic Sexuality

The Uses and Abuses of Historicism: Halperin and Shelley on the Otherness of Ancient Greek Sexuality

Richard C. Sha, American University*

Without arguing for direct influence, this essay reads a group of English poems as an implicit Romantic conversation that advances different models of sapphic sublimity in a troplogical contest about the nature and place of female affinities. I begin by revisiting the exclusion of 'Christabel' from the _Lyrical Ballads_; I discuss the implicit dialogue enacted through William Wordsworth’s sonnet to the 'Ladies of Llangollen' and Dorothy Wordsworth’s poem 'Irregular Verses'; and I conclude with a look at the metrical practices of these poems and of Shelley’s 'Rosalind and Helen' as a way to explore the ambivalences and ambiguities in Romantic configurations of female same-sex desire. This essay appears in _Historicizing Romantic Sexuality_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

"What function of the imagination can erect absolute difference at the point of deepest resemblance?"

—Stephen Greenblatt (134-35)

  1. Many historians of sexuality have come to accept alterity as the gold standard of history. It is easy to see why. Insofar as the historian of sexuality finds alterity in his or her version of past sexuality, that historian has seen sexuality as a historical category rather than a timeless and universal category. Instead of projecting his or her own values onto past forms of sexuality, acting like a tourist in the archive, the historian who embraces the alterity of past sexualities is offered the chance of enlightened awareness, of being simultaneously capable of history and metahistory. This awareness is all the more critical when sexuality is the historical object of scrutiny: human sexuality is so riven with such elusive concepts as desire and fantasy that it is crucial to refuse anachronism, and to separate one's own fantasies from those of the past.

  2. Although I think it is crucial to consider how past cultures did not necessarily understand sexuality in the ways that we now do, and although I see how alterity has made the history of sexuality sexier insofar as it now delivers encounters with other brave new sexual worlds that have the capacity to undermine the ontological solidity of ours, I worry that historicism's dependence upon alterity as a metaphysical principle has as much tendency to read a past position according to current ahistorical, philosophical belief as does the principle of identity it tries to overcome.[1] For this reason, I want here to use David M. Halperin and Percy Shelley to think about how alterity has become a post-modern version of objectivity. By that I mean that whereas under objectivity, historians could rely upon an historical object independent of the subject who wants it to become an historical object—a position that can now seem naive—our recent historicist self-consciousness that there are no innocent objects of historical inquiry has meant that alterity now takes on the possibility of distance between subject and historical object without bringing with it objectivity's naive baggage. Our alterities are calculated. Yet the admission of calculation is supposed to attenuate the shaping force of that calculation. Our thinking about the history of sexuality can only be strengthened by trying to come to terms with why we need past forms of sexuality to be other, and trying to distinguish between an otherness that speaks to our needs and an otherness that accounts for the needs of the past.

  3. Halperin's version of alterity ultimately leads to misreadings of Romanticism because it insists on seeing its construction of sexuality in terms of a periodization in which Romanticism exists before the construction of not only homosexuality but of sexuality itself. "Sexuality" occurs when "sexual object-choice became in the course of the twentieth-century, at least in some social worlds, an overriding marker of sexual difference" (How To 17). In other words, for there to be sexuality, sex and sexuality must have constitutive and totalizing hold over identity. Halperin crystallizes Foucault's definition of sexuality as "an apparatus for constituting human subjects" (How To 88). Hence, if we read Percy Shelley on Greece (his "Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love") through the lense of David Halperin on Greece, we can't understand the particular form Shelley's history takes. Insofar as Shelley understands the "sexual impulse . . . as common basis, an acknowledged and visible link of humanity" (220), he infers that "existence is becoming sexistence" (A. Davidson xiii) in the Romantic period, that sex is acquiring its constitutive hold over identity. I am suggesting that something approaching sexuality occurs before 1869. Moreover, I will show how in Shelley's essay, alterity is a strategy for controlling the traffic between identity and alterity, rather than a quasi-objective form of otherness.

    Halperin on Greek Alterity

  4. Perhaps no other historian of sexuality has done more to refine the differences between Ancient Greek concepts of sexuality and modern concepts than David M. Halperin. Building upon the work of K. J. Dover and Michel Foucault, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality claimed that it was wrong to apply the concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality to ancient Greek sexual practices because those terms blinded historians to the "indigenous terms in which the experiences of past historical cultures had been articulated" (How To Do 14). Halperin argued that the concept of homosexuality could not account for how sexual desire was construed in Ancient Greece. Sexuality was then "construed as normal or deviant according to whether it impelled social actors to conform to or to violate their conventionally defined gender roles" (One Hundred 25); certain homosexual acts could be celebrated only in certain specific hierarchical contexts (One Hundred 47). Halperin further maintained that what we now call "sexuality" then was more of a "dietary preference": sexual object choice did not then count as a "constitutive feature of . . . personality" (One Hundred 27). In short, Halperin showed how our current notions of sexuality made Ancient Greek sexuality incoherent: homosexuality and heterosexuality are too totalizing, encompassing, and just plain wrong. Moreover, they allow certain specific homoerotic behaviours to stand in for all homosexuality.

  5. More recently, Halperin's How to Do the History of Homosexuality opens with an eloquent defense of historicist practices, one that "foregrounds historical differences" and explicitly "attempts to acknowledge the alterity of the past" (17). Halperin buttresses his defense with a call for historians to engage in a valiant struggle: "to work against his or her intuitions, to counter them with hard-won apprehension of irreducible historical difference" (15). Halperin continues, "the ultimate purpose [of an enlightened historicism] was to accede, through a calculated encounter with the otherness of the past, to an altered understanding of the present—a sense of our own non-identity to ourselves—and thus to a new experience of ourselves as sites of potential transformation" (15). Whereas Halperin had in One Hundred Years wanted to "interrupt" the identifications of contemporary gay men with the Ancient Greeks, the Halperin of How to Do acknowledges the "hermeneutic advantages in foregrounding historical correspondences and identities" (15). He has thus refined his notion of alterity from a "priggish" one that would not acknowledge any resemblance (14) between ancient paederasty and modern homosexuality, to an alterity that now "acknowledge[s], promote[s], and support[s] a heterogeneity of queer identities, past and present" (16).

  6. Halperin's more refined concept of alterity enables him to reexamine the alleged gap between sexual acts and sexual identities, a gap falsely attributed to Foucault. Halperin is right that this conceptual maneuver has done much disservice to the history of sexuality, leading historians to ignore traces of identity in pre-modern forms of sexuality. Specifically, Halperin's claim that the kinaidos represented a "deviant sexual morphology without a deviant sexual subjectivity" (38) helps us to reconceptualize the relation between sexuality and identity, enabling us to consider the possibility of an "existence without sexistence," to put it in Arnold Davidson's terms (xiii). Indeed one of Halperin's most valuable suggestions for historians of sexuality is for us to "indicate the multiplicity of possible historical connections between sex and identity, a multiplicity whose existence has been obscured by the necessary but narrowly focused, totalizing critique of sexual identity as a unitary concept" (43).

  7. Nonetheless I want to ask how one knows when one is being "priggish" about one's alterity? This epistemological question acquires greater urgency in a climate in which identity and identification are such suspect terms, a climate in which alterity is always already a defensive posture. Moreover, to the extent that the Greeks understood what seems to us a mere morphology analogously to the way we understand identity/subjectivity—sexuality did not then have the totalizing constitutive hold over identity that it does now—just how significant is the distinction between morphology and subjectivity? Only from our post-sexological vantage point does identity without sexuality look like a morphology. Halperin's stress on alterity, his emphasis on Greek morphology, runs the danger of underestimating how the Greeks understood the relationship between sex and identity.

  8. Far from an "earned badge of struggle," alterity has too often become a marker of historical validity insofar as the historicist can turn to alterity to rescue him or herself from charges of bad history, projection, or anachronism. Halperin concedes that "a historicist approach to sexuality needs to be argued for as a preference, not insisted on as a truth" (23) and that "identification is a form of cognition" (15). Yet insofar as insistence upon alterity has become a symptom of our self-consciousness, declarations of alterity can dispense with the need for further self-consciousness. I am reminded here of Nietzsche's warning that "forgetting is essential to action of any kind" (62). Historicism fosters such amnesia by demanding consciousness about one's historiographical impulses, on the one hand, and on the other hand, by confessing an inability to stand fully outside one's own culture. Hence Halperin admits that histories of the present are "necessarily and inevitably framed by contemporary preoccupations and investments" (23). But doesn't inevitability make self-consciousness beside the point since consciousness is now powerless to stop the influence of those contemporary investments? That the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality did not exist in Ancient Greece does not, of course, mean that something like homosexuality and heterosexuality did not exist, although the absence of the categories is a kind of evidence. The fact that the Greeks categorized differently does not in itself mean the concepts are absent. Despite Halperin's recognition that identification is a form of cognition, it is for Halperin always already a suspect form of cognition. That he consistently takes other historians to task for their identifications (Brooten, Richlin, Williams) underscores that for Halperin identification is still an inferior form of cognition than alterity.

  9. It is Halperin's decision to collapse alterity with historical accuracy that most highlights the possibility that alterity has become a post-modern form of objectivity. Halperin begins his defense of historicism by admitting "my major preoccupation is with the accurate decipherment of historical documents" (2). He wants to "resituate [Greek erotic practices] in their original social context and (by refusing to conflate them with modern notions) to bring into clearer focus their indigenous meanings" (4). Here, it is the parenthetical substitution that I want to draw attention to; "refusing to conflate" and "resituat[ing] . . . in social context" are virtually equivalent terms. Yet contextualization is more than a refusal to conflate. This problem is further compounded by the fact that those "indigenous meanings" circulate within systems of thought that may be more ours than theirs. One thing is for sure: the Greeks did not define their sexual differences to enable the "disintegration of our own concepts" (107). To what extent is our version of their sexuality about our disintegration rather than about their own agenda? Perhaps alterity has become such a blind spot in historicism generally because it simultaneously serves as a proxy for "accuracy" and self-consciousness. If this is the case, are we asking alterity to perform too much work?

  10. One important way in which we screen the work of alterity from ourselves is through the way we think about language.Halperin sometimes suggests the possibility that language is transparent and at other times celebrates its opacity. When he invokes the "accurate decipherment of historical documents" (2), or "taking Greeks at their word" (3), or reading them "literally" (3), or "restor[ing] to Greek erotic practices their alterity" (4), Halperin seems almost positivistic. When Halperin criticizes the work of others, however, he lambasts them for "treat[ing] the texts they study as transparent windows onto Roman social reality and sexual practice" (144). Halperin further praises the work of one scholar for being "alive to the opacity of Roman sexual discourse" (144). I account for this seemingly contradictory relationship to language by noting that Halperin allows language to be transparent when it reveals the weirdness or alterity of Greek sexuality. To be fair to Halperin, his opening gestures of literalism are then immediately complicated by a post-structuralist self-reflectiveness. Nonetheless this oscillation from thinking about language as transparent to insisting upon its opacity recalls Brook Thomas's critique of the New Historicism. Thomas argues that the very post-structuralist theories that are invoked to attack past histories and to justify the new one, are often forgotten in the making of those histories (30). Even the most cursory examination of the Greek Lexicon, which highlights the mobility of Ancient Greek, or of Dover who teases out the ambiguities of kalos (111-21), should make us wary of gesturing towards transparency.

  11. I also wonder about the extent to which alterity is a blunt instrument, failing to acknowledge the possibility, a peculiarly Romantic possibility, that there are differences of kind and differences of degree. Differences of kind insist upon the alterity of alterity whereas differences of degree highlight a continuum between differences. In a larger view, I want to ask if the kind of world-mapping of sexuality that Eve Sedgwick argues took place in the late nineteenth century with the advent of sexology represents a difference of degree and not kind from the past. Our understanding of sexuality in the Romantic period would benefit considerably from genealogies of orientation, studies that show how orientation came to be.[2] Halperin's distinction between orientation and taste is perhaps a good place to consider how even his now less priggish alterity can still be a blunt instrument. Halperin argues that "the anonymous author of the pseudo-Lucianic Erotes approaches the question of male sexual object choice not as a matter of sexual orientation but rather as a matter of taste" (98). I want to deconstruct Halperin's binary opposition between taste and orientation because such a deconstruction potentially reveals the will to truth that can stand behind alterity.

  12. Halperin ends his discussion of the pseudo-Lucianic Erotes with a list of considerations that make the text "look very queer indeed, especially if we view it as a debate about the relative merits of homosexuality and heterosexuality" (99). Halperin has effectively demonstrated how "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" fail to describe how at least Lycinus and Theomnestus in the Erotes do not seem immune from the attractiveness of either sex. What is undeniably different is that object choices were associated with a much wider range of gender and status inferences: much more seems to be in play then. For example, as Halperin points out, we no longer equate a sexual preference for women with effeminacy (95). Nor is it easy for us to see how a culture could imagine heterosexual acts to be more awkward to defend than homosexual acts. But many of Halperin's considerations can look a lot less queer once we consider the possibility that he actively distances "taste" from orientation. Halperin later captures this difference as being between "belief and value," on the one hand, and "what or who they are," on the other (100). But is it not the object of the Platonic dialogues to close this very gap?

  13. The interlocuters of the Erotes attempt to persuade others of the superiority of either the love of boys or the love of women by attaching meanings to one's sexual object choice or even to the part of the anatomy that one uses to gratify one's sexual urges. Since the dialogue is a debate about the superiority of one version of love over another, both Charicles and Callicraditas associate object choices with gender, status, aesthetics, and morality. The partisan of boys, Callicraditas, hence, contrasts the "evils associated with women [and] the manly life of a boy" (217). Charicles, partisan of women, argues that only the love between man and woman is reciprocal, whereas only the active lover gains pleasure in the relations between man and boy (193). And whereas Charicles trumpets the higher purpose of sex between men and women, Callicratidas takes the Platonic view that it is more honorable to do things for aesthetic reasons than out of brute necessity. The fact that object choices connect to status, gender, and aesthetic implications brings taste closer to orientation: Charicles implies that male love of women is "an ordinance prescribed for us by providence" (185). That the Greek describes object choices in terms of diathesis, meaning leanings/inclinations or bodily state or condition, and gnome, translated as will, inclination, and dispositions (164-65), further suggests that, at least in these instances, we may have more in common with the Greeks than Halperin wants to allow for. While certainly not anchored securely in identity as "orientation" would have it, object choices are at least proximate to essence. To the extent that taste then could function as a marker of essence—justifying the citizen as citizen—orientation may have had an asymptotic rather than an differential relation to taste. If in Greek thought, societal happiness (eudaimonia) is "an objective condition, not a subjective feeling" (Gill 77), and if taste too names an objective condition thus giving it the residue of ontology, then how different is taste from orientation? In the Symposium, Diotima brings taste and orientation closer when she claims that he who wants to reach beauty, "like someone using a staircase, . . . should go from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from practices to beautiful forms of learning" (49).

  14. Although Halperin claims that Charicles's and Callicratidas's agreement about the sexual attractiveness of the famous statue of Aphrodite speaks not to a "preferred sex or gender but merely certain favorite parts of the human anatomy" (97), Halperin quotes yet ignores the fact that Callicratidas immediately changes the sex of the statue from Aphrodite to Ganymede (171): gazing longingly at the statue's proportional buttocks, thighs, and shins, Callicratidas utters: "So that's what Ganymede looks like as he pours out nectar in heaven for Zeus and makes it taste sweeter. For I'd never have taken the cup from Hebe if she served me" (171-73). While it is true that the passage anatomizes body parts, and true that when the two interlocuters hear the story of the youth who gluts his passion on the marble statue, the narrator exclaims that "he made love to the statue as though to a boy" (177), this missed detail of Callicratidas's projection of maleness onto the statue suggests that Halperin's statement that the text is about "differential liking for particular human body parts, independent of the person who possesses them" (98) needs qualification if not modification. Halperin might respond that since boys and women were somewhat interchangeable sexual objects in Greek culture, the shift from Aphrodite to Ganymede really doesn't substantially refute his argument. On the one hand, the fact that Ganymede is a boy, so beautiful that Zeus decides to abduct and rape him, highlights this interchangeability. On the other hand, Ancient Greek depictions of Ganymede sometimes depict him as a boy (small in stature with little or no musculature as in Ganymede 41 in Lexicon Iconographicum) and othertimes show him to be quite manly, though beardless (as in Ganymede 44).[3] Ganymede, then, partly undermines Halperin's claims of alterity, and Halperin's insistence upon the alterity of Greek sex explains his inattention to Ganymede. Moreover, that Callicratidas declares that he would have refused the cup from Hebe—who fell down in an indecent posture as she was pouring nectar to the Gods and thus lost her job to Ganymede—and that Ganymede makes the nectar sweeter, implies that the sex of the body does matter. Or would Halperin suggest that Ganymede has better thighs than Hebe, or that he isn't so clumsy?

  15. That Ganymede makes the nectar sweeter implies that there is something more than an absolute gap between body parts and personhood. This something more hints that Halperin's alterity—the notion that the Greeks could completely separate body parts from gender—is a form of what I am calling surplus alterity, more alterity than is necessary to make us question our own concepts of sexuality. Just as imposing our notions of sexuality onto the Greeks leads to blindnesses, so too does insisting that the Greeks were absolutely other. Insofar as it is our need to show the otherness of Greek sex that potentially overshadows the actual otherness of it, surplus alterity can be as much a form of blindness as a too ready identity. Alterity thus can disfigure otherness even as it renders it.[4]

  16. One further quarrel with Halperin's reading of the pseudo-Lucianic text may help underscore the fact that alterity can be a form of disfigurement. Halperin argues that Callicratidas's sexual desire for boys "makes him more of a man; it does not weaken or subvert his male gender identity but rather consolidates it" (94). Mindful of Eve Sedgwick's emphasis on contradiction (subsequent notions of sexuality betray the contradictions of the previous), and mindful of the insistent rhetoricity of the Erotes, I wonder if both weakening and consolidation are possible. Might Callicratidas's excess masculinity—his political life, oratory, physical training, and philosophy—license his general sexual desire for boys and the forms that desire might take even as it consolidates or defends his masculinity? I suggest that the insistence of multiple masculine traits bespeaks an anxious masculinity that must be cloaked under masculine bravado. Does Lycinus, the teller of the tale, protest too much, since he will not only side with Callicratidas, the lover of boys, but also reap the benefit of a "magnificent feast" by doing so (231)? Lycinus pronounces that "all men should marry, but let only the wise be permitted to love boys" (229). Certainly Lycinus loads the deck in favor of Callicratidas by initially calling attention to Charicles's deceptive and feminizing uses of make-up while contrasting those with Callicratidas's "straightforward ways" (163). Lycinus's early observation that Callicraditas takes "excessive delight in boys" (159) further indicates that his masculinity and his excessive indulgence in his object choices may be at odds. Halperin rejects the notion that a taste for boys weakened masculinity in part because he wants to insist upon Callicratidas's "well-established erotic 'identity'" (94) of the macho paederast.

  17. Halperin continues, "far from being effeminized by his sexual predilection for boys, as the modern 'inversion model' of homosexual desire would have it . . . Callicratidas's inclination renders him hypervirile: he excels, we are told, at those activities traditionally marked in Greek culture as exclusively and characteristically masculine" (94). Against Halperin's claim that paederasty renders masculinity, Eva Stehle suggests that masculinity was more performative than Halperin allows; she argues that complex gender codes were used to position speakers within the Symposia, and that men often disconnected from women in order to show their masculinity (227-28). And whereas Halperin claims that the Athenian's "inclination renders him hypervirile," Lycinus makes it clear that Callicratidas's fondness of wrestling schools stems from his inclination: Lycinus states that "he was only fond of the wrestling schools on account of his love for boys (the Greek insists that love of boys is the cause of his love for wrestling)" (163).

  18. How might one account for the discrepancy between Pseudo Lucian and Halperin? I suggest that to preserve if not foreground the alterity of the Greeks, Halperin performs an inversion of inversion; that is, unlike modern accounts of homosexuality that explain it as a form of effeminizing, the Greeks understood a taste for boys as masculinizing. Hence Halperin takes paederasty as a cause or symptom of a sign of Greek masculinity—fondness for physical training and wrestling. The problem is that the Greek text does not support Halperin's claim that inclination "renders" Callicratidas more masculine; rather, it suggests a far more boring possibility: that a taste for boys accounts for the Athenian's desire to be around boys. Again: "he is only fond of wrestling schools on account of his love for boys" (163). The Erotes juxtaposes signs of masculinity with paederasty, which alone points to the otherness of the Greeks, but it does not make the causal connection between inclination and virility that Halperin argues for. If love for boys accounts for love of physical training, it does not mean that love of wrestling equals hypermasculinity. Dover suggests the more boring alternative when he argues that "the gymnasium as a whole or the wrestling-school in particular provided opportunities for looking at naked boys, bringing oneself discreetly to a boy's notice in the hope of eventually speaking to him . . . and even touching a boy in a suggestive way, as if by accident. . ." (54-55). Dover's alternative implies that the very symmetry and neatness of Halperin's version of Greek alterity—they invert our models of inversion—indicates that alterity can disfigure the messiness of sexuality even when it aestheticizes it, makes it symmetrical.

  19. The classical scholar James Davidson puts more pressure not only on Halperin's claim that paederasty renders hypermasculinity, but also on Halperin's insistence upon the absence of reciprocal eros in Greek paederasty (Halperin 150-3). Halperin concedes that there is reciprocal emotion between the erastes and eromenos, but he draws the line at sexual desire. "The Greeks distinguished carefully between eros and philia—passionate sexual desire and love, or romantic and non-romantic love" (147). When Davidson argues that Greek penetration was not always honorable and that the active role was not "always assigned positive manly values" (29), he introduces a significant gap between a sexual act and its gender implications. Such a gap begins to undermine Halperin's claim that the Greeks understood sexual deviance more in terms of gender than in terms of desire (37) because it questions whether the Greeks saw the passive role in sodomy as deviance, and whether the erastes and eromenos have gender implications at all. Davidson puts it this way: "the erastes is simply 'a male who loves,' the eromenos, 'a male who is 'loved.' (Discussions of penetration often seem to confuse grammatical and sexual activity/passivity)" (41). Davidson concludes that "the terminology of erastes and eromenos says nothing in itself about penetration" (41). The classicist Claude Calame also undermines the notion that Greek penetration was noble when he claims that passivity only became a target when it was coupled with sodomy (137). By contrast, here's Halperin: "the unmentionable deed of the cinaedi . . . is passive bodily penetration" (125); and "to be sexually penetrated was always therefore potentially shaming for a free male of citizen status" (147).

  20. The difference between Halperin and Davidson amounts to this. Halperin wants the Greeks to be more precise in their categories than us—hence, they distinguish between sexual love and romantic love in ways we don't. They also link active love and passive love with gender hierarchies to degrees that we do not. Halperin also wants the Greeks to define deviance more in terms of gender than in terms of sex. Together, these two kinds of alterity are designed to make us now question our insistence upon sexuality as an explanatory tool, and to think about how the current muddying of categories extends the reach of sexuality. Davidson argues that the notion of the alterity of Greek sex has in fact enabled a current phallocentrism to smuggle itself backwards into history. Tellingly, Davidson substitutes difference for otherness when he states, "if Greek sexuality is not other, it certainly appears rather different" (47). Difference tempers the absolutism of alterity. In the end, he hopes that he will have encouraged a renewed questioning about the role of the homoerotic in Greek culture.

  21. Halperin's claim that Callicratidas's virile gender identity is stable, despite his taste for boys, is further potentially undercut by the Pseudo-Lucianic text itself. While Callicratidas does not on the face of it appear inverted, the Greeks were perfectly capable of using supposedly "modern" models of inversion to describe same sex acts. Charicles argues that homophilia is caused by luxury: "luxury, daring all, transgressed the laws of nature herself. And who was the first to look at male as though female. . . . One nature/sex came together in one marriage bed. Though they saw themselves embracing each other, they were ashamed neither at what they did nor at what they had done to them, and, sowing their seed, to quote the proverb, on barren rocks they bought a little pleasure at the cost of great disgrace" (183). Unspecified sexual acts between men are referred to in terms of a kind of inversion, looking at a man as if he were female. Much in the same way as inversion now works, Charicles uses inversion to normalize homoerotic desire by making it the desire of a feminized male for another male: the defender of love between the sexes enables desire to remain essentially heterosexual. Here I also want to highlight that the text allows for slippage between active and passive sexual roles: "they were neither ashamed at what they did or what they had done to them." The insistent plurals undermine the notion of exclusive sexual roles. Nor does this passage distinguish between boys and men. In point of fact, the Greek agonos speiro, meaning they are sowing seed on a barren field, indicates that what is being described is a sexual relationship between men or at least between a man and adolescent—not children—inasmuch as both are depicted as ejaculating. The proximity of Callicratidas to this description of inversion, coupled with the reference to his "excessive," and thus effeminizing, desire for boys (159), makes it possible that Callicratidas may be protesting too much in trying to become the poster boy for masculinity.

  22. In fairness to Halperin, I do want to point out that this example of Greek inversion is more complicated than I have thus far indicated. The difference between this inversion and ours is that as the feminized male, Charicles, is credited with the ability to be persuasive about the love of a man for a woman. As Halperin acknowledges, "according to the terms of Greek misogynistic discourse, there would appear to be no distinction between being the champion of women and being their slave" (95). Charicles, the one "most feminine of all," is asked "to plead the cause of womankind" (181). We, of course, expect the feminized male to plead the cause of homosexuality. That Greek inversion has this interesting wrinkle to it does suggest that Halperin is right in warning us that orientation is not accurate for the Greeks. Fair disclosure also prompts me to acknowledge that the inverted male is either inverted because he was "cunningly persuaded" or "tyrannically constrained" (183). Nonetheless, the fact that the Greeks could interpret sex acts between ejaculating males in terms of the desire of a man seeing another man as a member of the female sex means that they were not as other as Halperin maintains. I also wish that Halperin's version of Greek otherness would do more to acknowledge a possible gap between Greek prescription and Greek practice. That Callicratidas's love of boys is coupled with "hatred for women" (163), furthermore, indicates that more than an inessential "taste" is at issue, and that sexual desire could spill into gender.

  23. My sense that alterity has as much tendency to distort history as does the principle of identity that alterity tries to overcome is even further strengthened by James Davidson, who argues that Kenneth Dover's and Michel Foucault's "picture of ancient sex and sexual morality as a plus-minus 'zero sum game,' where one party can only win at the expense of the other, is not only unsubstantiated, but contradicts what evidence there is" (7). For Davidson, there is simply no evidence that the Greeks understood penetration as a form of power; moreover, "much of the abuse directed at pathics, . . . is clearly attacking excess or readiness, rather than a man's 'loss of virginity' or submission" (21-22). Davidson continues, "it [penetration as power] is a fantasy—a fantasy based on modern preoccupations of sex as power; a fantasy driven by the desire to prove that (Greek) homosexuality was (is) not 'real'; a fantasy based, paradoxically, on a twentieth-century impulse to fight against Victorian inhibition and hypocrisy and to expose 'the truth of sex'" (7). The failure to find evidence that sexual verbs indicated aggression leads Davidson to conclude that "it is illegitimate to interpret Greek scenes of penetration in terms of domination" (25). The end result of Davidson's work is that all the usual suspects—the kinaidos, the katapugon, the eromenos—trotted out to show Greek contempt of sexual passivity—don't look like usual suspects anymore. Davidson suggests that rather than being the poster boys of effeminizing receptive intercourse, these need to be seen as poster boys of excess and commerce. While Davidson is especially good at historicizing Dover's and Foucault's motivations for recent histories of Greek sex, his debunking of those histories does not yet do enough to explain the logic behind Greek sex.

  24. I juxtapose Halperin's version of Greek alterity with Davidson's precisely because both versions together allow us to consider how alterity is necessarily selective. Is the appropriate context gender and penetration, or is it sexual excess or commerce? Selection intervenes at two stages: once at the choice of the details that will persuade us of alterity, and once again when those details are interpreted in larger contexts. Which explanatory framework will be chosen? These two moments of selection suggest that alterity is—like a self-conscious objectivity—a composite of the historian's desire and the object of that desire. Although I think that Halperin would admit that his own will to truth potentially disfigures alterity, I think he underestimates that disfigurement. Halperin wants the alterity of Greek sex to show the constructedness of our notion of sexuality. But exactly how much alterity is necessary to do this? And must this alterity necessarily be one of kind versus degree? Davidson critiques what has become a standard view of the inherent nobility of Greek penetration, a view that Halperin shares, to show how that model of ancient macho culture enabled Dover to rescue Greek culture from homophobia, and to suggest that what began as a search for the contingency of Greek sexuality actually reinforced a transhistorical notion of sexual act as domination (37). For Halperin, "the Greeks understood sex itself to be defined entirely in terms of phallic penetration" (147). He continues, the Greeks had a "social/conceptual/erotic grid that aligned masculinity, activity, penetration, and dominance, along one axis and femininity, passivity, being penetrated, and submission along another. The two axes corresponded to, but could function independently of, gender differences" (56). For Davidson, buggery only became a problem under certain contexts like commerce, and the roles of erastes and eromenos do not have any necessary gender implications.

  25. I want here to attend to another important repressed form of identity within Halperin's version of Greek alterity. Whereas under orientation, we turn to sexuality as a totalizing explanation, Halperin would have us consider that the Greeks thought that gender was their encompassing explanation. Sexual acts correlated then with gender whereas they now correlate with sexuality. Despite their differences, both models seek a totalizing explanation, a kind of world mapping that may pertain more to modernity than to Ancient Greece. Davidson's skepticism concerning what he calls a fantasy of macho Ancient Greek culture should make us question how we are using gender to explain Greek sex. If we are not using gender as a totalizing explanation, we are potentially distorting how gender gets mapped onto sex. The complex use of inversion in the Erotes also enables us to question how gender has been used to describe the sex lives of the Ancient Greeks: we need in any case a concept of gender that enables us to account for the effeminate Charicles's authority to speak on love between the sexes, and, also to account for how Charicles sees homosexual acts in terms of a feminized male looking at another male.

  26. James Davidson further allows us to consider the extent to which alterity can facilitate denial. If the notion that the Greeks only valued penetration is a fantasy, then is it true that reciprocal sexual relations between men did not exist or that something like homosexuality was not even recognized (Halperin 99)? Halperin baldly states that "the Greeks understood sex itself to be defined entirely in terms of phallic penetration, regardless of whether the sexual partners were both males, both females, or male and female" (147). The addendum to One Hundred Years acknowledges the existence of Attic pottery that depicts reciprocal erotic contacts between adult males (225). Yet in How to do the History of Homosexuality, Halperin claims that there are "rare" instances of reciprocal male eros, only to discount those presences as absences or "omissions" (150). Here is Halperin: "Allusions to reciprocal male eros or anteros are almost entirely missing from DeVries's archive, and when on rare occasions they do occur, the occurences tend to be quite late historically" (150). What interests me here is Halperin's rhetoric: allusions to reciprocal male love do occur, but rarely, and these allusions "tend" to be quite late. Halperin deftly transforms the presence of allusions into something missing—they "are almost entirely missing"—even as he finesses the chronology by claiming that these allusions tend to be late. They may tend to lateness, but his choice of "tend" implies that some of the rare allusions aren't late. In the same vein, I take issue with Halperin's claim that there is a "virtual exclusion of any mention of female or adult male homosexuality" in the Erotes. Certainly there seems to be no positive mention of homosexual acts between adults. Yet recall the passage cited above about luxury and looking at a male as though a female; this passage links this inversion with male sex acts. Both sow seeds in a barren field; both need to be able to ejaculate. A negative treatment of adult homosexual acts is far from a "virtual exclusion" of any mention. When is an absence an absence? Moreover, Callicraditas does imagine a life with his male lover in old age: "I shall ail with him when he is weak, and, when he puts out to sea through stormy waves, I shall sail with him" ([Pseudo-]Lucian 221).

  27. My skepticism about Halperin's use of alterity has been leading up to this: despite Halperin's recognition that there are relations between sexual acts and identities in Ancient Greece, he subscribes to the notion that sexual identity as we now know it took place post 1860. Halperin writes, "I continue to believe that something very significant happened when sexual object-choice became in the course of the twentieth century, at least in some social worlds, an overriding maker of sexual difference" (17). On the one hand, Halperin wants to think outside of our present concept of orientation. On the other hand, he makes orientation his vantage point for establishing the alterity of Ancient Greek sexuality. His choice of orientation as the vantage point for gauging the alterity of the Greeks has the unintended effect of anchoring modern sexual categories in the ontology of history. One could easily imagine other ways of thinking about alterity: for example, by examining how different cultures cope with the elasticity and excessiveness of desire, orientation thus becomes a strategy for dealing with—for tempering—the mobility of desire just as gender is one means of discouraging excess desire in Ancient Greece. Such a re-imagining demands that we truly think outside of orientation by insisting upon its ideological work without running the danger of reifying orientation as a vantage point from which to gauge alterity.

  28. Recently, Jonathan Dollimore has explained what queer theorists might have to gain from the notion of orientation. He calls attention to the fact that, on the one hand, queer theorists embrace a notion of deviant desire as inherently "dangerous and disruptive" (18). On the other hand, he asks why the queer theorist is himself or herself never undone by desire, why desire is only disruptive for everyone else. Dollimore thus argues that "identity politics might in part be a defence against the instabilities and difficulties of desire itself" (32). Dollimore potentially explains Halperin's resistance to orientation, a resistance that simultaneously tries to step outside of it and to enshrine it as a vantage point. Before one can show the otherness of orientation, one has to be absolutely sure one is not in some way beholden to it.

  29. Like Halperin, Percy Shelley is committed to the otherness of Greek sex. Unlike Halperin, the poet labels the sexuality of the Greeks as other so that he can deny the contemporary existence of male-male love in Britain. Halperin wants the Greeks to be other because such a claim will show us the limitations of our modern concepts of sexuality. I have suggested, however, that Halperin uses alterity as a more palatable (because postmodern) form of objectivity. Halperin's desire to have the alterity of the Greeks undermine the ontological solidity of our concepts of sexuality disfigures that alterity because it sharpens differences to facilitate current disequilibrium. Alterity thus becomes a means of controlling the traffic between identity and difference, rather than a simple declaration of difference. Shelley wants the passion of the Greeks to be "'inconceivable' to the imagination of a modern European" (222). And the poet not only explains the alterity of Greek sexuality in terms of gender inequality, but he also denies the existence of gender inequality in Britain to make love between men and paederasty now impossible.

    Percy Shelley and the Alterity of the Greeks[5]

  30. If James Davidson is right that contemporary accounts of Ancient Greek sexuality invoke the alterity of the Greeks only to smuggle in a modern notion of sexual penetration as power, then, his work is also helpful for understanding how alterity can be shaped by identity even as it denies or suppresses it. Although it is now common to think of essence as a form of identity and identification, and construction as a form of alterity, both Shelley and Halperin remind us that essences can be constructed and that alterities can be about forms of identification. Viewing alterity and identity together helps us to understand Shelley's othering of Greek sexuality in as much as it explains Halperin's complex use of a less priggish alterity to control the traffic between identity and alterity. More to the point, without some sense of a homosexual identity, we cannot account for Shelley's complex traverses from alterity to identity. Why doesn't Shelley find the alterity of Greek sex sufficiently explanatory? And if he can identify with the Greeks even by way of denial, might not alterity work actively to suppress identity even as it denies it?

  31. In his "Discourse of the Manners of the Antient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love" (1818), one of two prefaces he wrote to his translation of Plato's Symposium, Shelley highlights the imperfections of the Greeks to inspire contemporary society to a higher standard of perfection. "When we discover how far the most admirable community ever formed was removed from . . . perfection . . . how great ought to be our hopes, how resolute our struggles," the poet exclaims (219). The clearest sign of their imperfection—their alterity—is their homoeroticism. Shelley's argument is simply that the Ancient Greeks made males erotic objects for other males because they understood women to be inferior; the idea of intellectual beauty as the highest form of beauty precluded women from being thought of as truly beautiful. Men thus turned to "illegitimate" objects for their sexual instincts. Rest assured, Shelley seems to say, because there was no such thing as real homosexual desire in Ancient Greece; there were only illegitimate objects of desire. The poet begins by insisting that "the regulations and sentiments respecting sexual intercourse" form "one of the chief distinctions between the manners of ancient Greece and modern Europe" (219). The stakes of this alterity are that so long as homosexual acts can be explained by gender attitudes of the past, and as long as modern Europe has improved relations between men and women, neither paederastic acts nor homosexual beings can now exist. Shelley argues that "the practices and customs of modern Europe are essentially different from and comparably less pernicious than either [the Greeks and Romans]" (221). He continues, "in modern Europe the sexual and intellectual claims of love, by the more equal cultivation of the two sexes, so far converge towards one point so as to produce, in attempt to unite them, no gross violation in the established nature of man" (221). Without gender inequality, there is no "violation in the established nature of man."

  32. Part of the reason why Shelley thought of sex acts between men in terms of natural violation, is that he cannot imagine paederasty to have been consensual. The poet was by no means isolated in his inability to then imagine consensual paederasty or sodomy; medical books of jurisprudence of the time read the male anus for signs of forced sodomy, listing "inflamation, excoriation, heat and contusion, dialation of the sphincters, ulceration, a livid appearance, and thickening" as signs of "unnatural rape" (Beck 1:102-03).[6] Somewhat surprising, however, is this medical author's insistence that "no man should be condemned on medical proofs only" (Beck 1:103). The body can offer an unambiguous sign of rape only when it is accompanied by an accusation. Even in medical jurisprudence, language supplements the body. Shelley writes, "It is impossible that a lover could usually have subjected the object of his attachment to so detestable a violation or have consented to associate his own remembrance in the beloved mind with images of pain and horror" (222). Shelley cannot conceptualize paederasty as a form of homosexual sex that is pleasurable sex, and without pleasure there can be no consent. By contrast, Friedrich Karl Forberg's 1842 Manual of Classical Erotology argues that the passive party to "pedication" could and did feel pleasure.[7] Forberg writes, "we must come to the conclusion that the patient experiences in the anus the same kind of irritation which the other party feels in his genital parts; that, therefore the patient feels in that place a real pleasure unknown to those who have not tried it" (91). Instead of pleasure, Shelley can only express disgust: "the action by which this passion was expressed, taken in its grossest sense, is indeed sufficiently detestable" (223). I read this expression of disgust as Shelley's declaration that he is helping to secure the boundaries of the culture, rather than threatening it (see Dollimore, 47-51). Francis Bacon had argued that "our taste is never pleased better than with those things which at first created some disgust" (cited in Thornton [1:460]), and Bacon's point was reiterated in Robert Thornton's Medical Extracts, which Shelley ordered from Thomas Hookham in July 1812. That disgust could mask pleasure underscores the complex and surprising work of alterity.

  33. But as soon as Shelley insists on the essential difference of the Greeks, he acknowledges kinds of identity. Neither disgust nor alterity preclude identity. Although Shelley argues that gender attitudes are now more equal—modern Europeans are capable of recognizing female intellectual beauty and thus do not turn to males as the objects of desire—the current equality of gender that he insists upon begins to seem mere insistence. I'll note that Shelley's above rhetoric moves from absolute difference (his phrase is "essential difference") to comparative difference, ("more equal"). Once Shelley has opened the door to differences of degree rather than kind between the Greeks and modern Europeans, he argues that "this invidious distinction of humankind as a class of beings [of] intellectual nature into two sexes is a remnant of savage barbarism which we have less excuse than they for not having totally abolished" (222). By admitting that gender inequality has not been abolished—we have less excuse than they—Shelley is also admitting the possibility that a love between men now exists. While the poet's denial can easily be understood by recalling the fact that sodomy at the time in Britain was a crime punishable by death, and that 1805-1815 was the height of British cultural homophobia (Gilbert), these facts do not explain why Shelley dismantles the very explanation that insulates him from charges of homoeroticism. He can't be one of them so long as it doesn't exist.

  34. What interests me here is how the otherness of the Greeks masks Shelley's double denial. Inequality between the sexes no longer exists; ergo, homoeroticism no longer exists. Given that his mother-in-law was Mary Wollstonecraft, and given that she had railed against separate education of the sexes and feminine sensibility as stunting women's rational capacities, Shelley's momentary blindness to female inequality is breathtaking. Compounding this denial is Shelley's claim in a letter of 1818 that he wrote this essay "to give Mary some idea of the manners & feelings of the Athenians" (Jones 2:470). Shelley's access to the truth of Greek manners and Mary's exclusion from it provides further evidence of the poet's denial. Shelley's second denial— that of the contemporary existence of homoeroticism—is also astounding in light of the homosociality of public school culture that he was part of, not to mention the fact that two boys generally slept together, naked in one featherbed (Crompton, Byron 79). When coupled with the fact that Shelley is writing his translation in Italy, a country known for its sodomical tendencies, and that Shelley remarks in an April 1818 letter that Italian women seem "a very inferior race of beings" (cited in Brown, 16; Reiman 6:583), Shelley's sense of the otherness of the Greeks may well have deflected attention away from his own homosocial desires. At very least, Shelley inadvertently explains why paederasty and/or love between men exists in Italy: like Ancient Greek women, modern Italian women are too ugly to be legitimate objects of sexual desire. Nathaniel Brown notes that in Shelley's remarks about Greek sculpture, Shelley was most enamored of Ganymede's beauty. The poet rhapsodized that it was "difficult to conceive anything more delicately beautiful than the Ganymede" (cited in Brown, 21, and in Crompton Byron, 292-3).

  35. Shelley will soon have to deal with Byron's homosexuality. In a letter of December 1818, Shelley complains about the fact that Byron is associating "with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait and phisiognomy of man [sic], & who scruple to avow practices which are not only not named but I believe seldom even conceived of in England. He says he disapproves, but he endures" (cited in Cameron, 179; Jones 2:58). Shelley's skepticism about Byron's declared disapproval leads him to deny not only the very name of these practices, but also the very idea of them; as we might expect, this denial is confined only to England. Although Shelley does refer to "sodomitical" practices and not to identities, he does crucially make Byron guilty by association (identification leads to identity). Moreover, those "practices" have the power to write themselves onto the body through physiognomy and sex, thus becoming identity. Despite Shelley's use of "practices," which seems to support arguments that sexuality has not yet occurred, sex has constitutive hold over identity. That Shelley's understanding of the constitutive relation between sex and identity is not our understanding of that constitutive relation does not mean that no constitutive relation exists.

  36. Despite Shelley's constructionist explanation of the alterity of Greek paedophila in the "Discourse"—the Greeks could not love women because women were considered physically and intellectually inferior—Shelley often returns to essentialist explanations that further undermine modern European (not to mention his own) immunity to homoeroticism. Chief among these is that Shelley suggests that the cause might be in "the original constitution of the peculiar race of the Greeks" (221). If the cause is constitutional, then Greek attitudes towards gender cannot explain them away. Shelley also admits that "beautiful persons of the male sex became the object of that sort of feelings, which are only cultivated at present as towards females" (221, emphasis mine). The poet's specification of "cultivated" pointedly does not exclude the possibility of perverted sexual beings. That the Penal Code of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Code had recently decriminalized sodomy (Crompton Byron 37), meant that some parts of Modern Europe were cultivating homosexual desire.

  37. Whereas Shelley initially implies that homoeroticism cannot now exist, he concludes the essay by admitting that "in the golden age of our own literature a certain sentimental attachment towards persons of the same sex was not uncommon" and that Shakespeare was among those who turned to poetry to "commemorate an attachment of this kind" (223). Moreover, "towards the age of Charles II it is said that this romantic friendship degenerated into licentiousness" (223). Despite the poet's distancing of his own voice from this comment—"it" speaks—Shelley acknowledges that romantic friendship was then only steps away from licentious acts. By contrast, in his own later prose fragment on friendship, Shelley insists that friendship must be "wholly divested of the smallest alloy of sensuality" (Clark 338). His choice of "divest" leaves open the possibility that male-male friendships are inherently sensual; after all, one cannot divest what one does not already have. By acknowledging the connections between Renaissance literature in Britain and homoeroticism, Shelley brings both homoeroticism and gender inequality dangerously close to nineteenth-century Britain. And by refusing to separate both sexual intercourse between men from love, and paederasty from same-sex love, Shelley posits something like homosexuality.

  38. But Shelley's most intriguing turn to concepts of identity to explain Greek homoeroticism is his connection of paedophilia with puberty: "If we consider the facility with which certain phenomena connected with sleep, at the age of puberty, associate themselves with those images which are the objects of our waking desires; and even that in some persons of an exalted state of sensibility that a similar process may take place in reverie, it will not be difficult to conceive the almost involuntary consequence of a state of abandonment in the society of a person of surpassing attractions" (222).

  39. This connection of puberty to homoeroticism makes that homoeroticism quasi-sexual: it is as the lesbian sexuality of Fanny Hill, a warm-up exercise to the real thing. Shelley also thereby welds homoeroticism to an ambiguous state between dreaming and waking, a welding that fudges the relationship of this desire to will. The associations are "almost involuntary." At the same time, however, by linking puberty to homoeroticism, Shelley potentially normalizes homoeroticism insofar as it is now part and parcel of a normal biological process of sexual maturation, a rite of passage. This incipient normalization of an almost unconscious homoeroticism, however, is blocked by the poet's insistence that the sexual act "ought to be indulged according to nature" (222).

  40. But there is much more to this blockage. In the above passage, Shelley brings homoeroticism dangerously close to Romanticism itself. Visionary Romanticism is obsessed with the boundary line between sleep and waking. Think here of Keats's "Do I wake or sleep?" Moreover, Shelley connects homoeroticism with "a state of exalted sensibility" (222), recalling Wordsworth's definition of the poet as the man of a high degree of feeling. This proximity of homoeroticism to the narcissism of Romanticism is made even more threatening by Shelley's confusing invocations of nature. Greek paederasty is explained by gender inferiority but then accounted for by the "peculiar nature" of the Greeks. And when Shelley turns to puberty to explain Greek sexuality, he threatens to overturn the category of nature itself.

  41. Puberty was a particularly volatile moment of natural transition in the Romantic period; hence, puberty was the subject of enormous medical speculation.[8] Unlike us, Romantic medical writers tended to think of puberty as the moment in which two essentially feminine sexes became fully differentiated into male and female. The surgeon William Lawrence and friend of the Shelleys referred to pre-pubescent children as "equivocal beings." Unlike us, who tend to see the primacy of genital difference, the Romantics saw puberty as the moment in which secondary differentiation made feminized males become real men. (See, for example, Don Juan, Canto 9:45-49). Secondary differentiation then had the weight of sexual differentiation. I raise this historical sense of how the Romantics understood puberty because it helps us to see how complicated Shelley's connection of homoeroticism with puberty was. Since puberty was the moment when the one feminized sex became two, nature was in a state of radical transformation, a transformation that puts even further pressure upon ideas of the natural. To the extent that males before puberty were considered as feminized, what is the appropriate object of love for pre-pubescent boys? This shifting nature and Romantic culture's awareness of sex as a dynamic transformation, not only offered precarious ground for legitimacy and normality, but also hinted at the possibility that all boys had the potential to choose other males as objects for their love.

  42. Even more vexing is the fact that much of Shelley's thinking about sexuality derives from the Greeks (see White 2:22-24). Shelley concedes that the sexual act itself is nothing (221). He then argues that there are two sorts of condemnation against it: one, societal and therefore arbitrary; and two, natural, "in regards to the indestructible laws of human nature" (221). The poet's distinction between arbitrary and natural condemnation is indeed courageous, given that sodomy is in England a capital crime. He elaborates three propositions that establish the applications of the natural law. First, the person selected for this gratification should be "as perfect and beautiful as possible, both in body and mind" (222). This proposition paradoxically derives from the Greeks, as it hearkens back to Diotima's instructions for Socrates in The Symposium. Second, Shelley insists upon temperance. This is also part of the Greek understanding of sex. Third, Shelley insists again that "this act ought to be indulged according to nature" (222). Propositions one and two clearly are indebted to the Greeks. Proposition three, however, goes against the Greek elevation of homoerotic relationships; moreover, it contradicts Shelley's own admission that the sexual manners of the Greeks might in fact stem from their very "nature." Even more to the point, Rudi Bleys has shown how Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, among others, argued that sodomy was in fact natural because it was so widespread (65-68).[9] Shelley may well have known that French philosophers thought that sodomy was natural. When Shelley left France and entered Savoy, customs officers confiscated the poet's copies of Voltaire and Rousseau (White 2:5).

  43. What began as clear difference—what was "inconceivable"—ended up close to identity. One way to explain this is that alterity enables denial of proximity. Otherness can be a distorted form of self-recognition. Shelley in fact admits that otherness can rescue the self when he notes that "nothing is at the same time more melancholy and ludicrous than to observe that the inhabitants of one epoch or of one nation harden themselves to all amelioration of their own practices and institutions and soothe their consciences by heaping violent invectives upon those of others while in the eye of sane philosophy their own are no less deserving of censure" (223). Here, Shelley shrewdly recognizes that invectives levelled against the past can not only ease present consciences, but also make it unnecessary to change the self.

  44. Because invectives against the past can stunt the present's need to amelioriate itself, Shelley equates homoeroticism with prostitution, making them equally morally reprehensible. Look at yourselves, Shelley warns the English. After condemning the Greeks for glutting their passions "detestabl[y]," the poet adds, "but a person must be blinded by superstition to conceive of it as more horrible than the usual intercourse endured by almost every youth of England with a diseased and insensible prostitute. It cannot be more unnatural, for nothing defeats and violates nature, or the purposes for which the sexual instincts are supposed to have existed, than prostitution" (223). In light of Randolph Trumbach's argument that middle-class men in the eighteenth century had to see prostitutes to defend their sexuality from charges of sodomy (61-65), Shelley's lumping together of prostitution and homoeroticism may be an even more powerful form of denial/recognition than I have thus far suggested. One must, of course, recognize what one denies. Ivan Crozier has recently suggested that "sources for nineteenth- century medical history of same-sex behaviour are hidden in books on venereology, forensic medicine, criminology and hypnotism, when it was written about at all" (63). Perhaps our sense of the otherness of orientation has prevented us from looking at its genealogy or at incipient forms of it. Even as we now look for more nuanced connections between sex and identity as David Halperin has urged us to do, we might also begin to rethink the different historical forms for how sex begins to constitute identity in the past. And although both the Greeks and the Romantics would seem to have a more elastic concept of desire than we now do—orientation has made desire seem welded to identity through object choice in ways the past seems to be oblivious to—I suggest that orientation has just been another historical form for controlling the mobility of desire, one that has acquired the solidity of fact.

  45. I have tried to show how Shelley's concept of the alterity of Greek sex cannot be understood without some sense of the poet's complex identifications with the Greeks. Shelley's turn to concepts of identity furthermore undermines Halperin's sense that before sexology, one did not have concepts of sexuality, of sexuality having enormous conceptual hold over identity. We can trace the emergence of sexuality in the fact that associating with men who practiced sodomy had the potential to impugn sexual practices of the associate. Shelley's imagining that the practice of sodomy writes itself on the body in terms of sex and physiognomy further indicates the growing constitutive hold that sex has over identity. What makes the Greeks different—what gives them their identity—is their "regulations and sentiments concerning sexual intercourse" (219). That we can only gauge Shelley's identifications through denial (alterity) should perhaps alert us to how alterity functions in the history of sexuality as a form of objectivity and to how alterity controls the traffic between identity and difference.

  46. Before closing, I want to identify important similarities between Halperin's and Shelley's versions of Greek alterity because those similarities put pressure on alterity's ability to generate new accounts of past sexualities. Both at least initially make gender central to accounts of Greek sexuality. Both connect Greek sex to important shifts in patterns of erotic organization: homoeroticism becomes a crucial site for the reimagining of basic social relationships. Halperin wants to make Greek paederasty an inverted form of our inversion: paederasty makes Greek men more manly. Shelley wants to claim that without gender inequality, homosexual acts are not possible. Halperin's sense of how Greek paederasty renders masculinity is complicated by his view that modern homosexuality is about the absence of gender difference. Whereas the Greeks used sex to consolidate gender, modern homosexuality has the potential to eradicate the negative implications of gender difference, a conclusion that just so happens to intensify and demonstrate the otherness of Greek sex. Halperin elaborates, "One effect of the concept of homosexuality is to detach sexual object choice from any necessary connection with gender identity" (132). Moreover, writes Halperin, "homosexual relations are not necessarily lopsided in their distribution of erotic pleasure or desire" (133). What does Halperin mean by insisting upon "not necessarily"? Are heterosexual relations thus necessarily lopsided? "Homosexual relations no longer necessarily imply an asymmetry of social identities of sexual positions, nor are they inevitably articulated in terms of hierarchies of power, age, gender, or sexual role" (133). But does getting rid of gender get rid of hierarchy? And if the notion of the macho penetrating paederast is a fantasy, as James Davidson has argued, does gender have the explanatory power over Greek sex that Halperin suggests it does? For Shelley, eradicating gender inequality will result in the end of homoeroticism. That both Halperin and Shelley turn to gender to explain Greek sex suggests that we need more historically-refined accounts of the relationship between gender and sexuality, accounts that are more careful not to smuggle contemporary ways of seeing gender back into the past. Both together also imply that it might be useful to consider convergences—how gender and sexuality are interwoven—before one fully assents to the otherness of Greek sex, that sex was then about gender deviance whereas it is now about sexuality. That Shelley could associate what we now call "homophobia" with gender equality, a position that seems inexplicable to us because it is the opposite of what we expect, further argues for such refining.

  47. I conclude by making it clear that despite my skepticism about alterity, I am not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Alterity, especially Halperin's reflexive brand of it, has enabled important correctives to universalizing histories of sexuality. Alterity also has done much to explain elements of Greek sex that were previously incomprehensible. No one reading Halperin can afford "unproblematically" to map heterosexuality and homosexuality onto the past. Halperin's insistence upon alterity has led me to consider if proximity might be a useful historical concept because it, unlike alterity, suggests differences of degree not kind. I have argued that alterity is a post-modern form of objectivity in that it claims to deliver difference even as it controls the traffic between identity and difference. Considering how alterity functions as a blind spot of historicism will enable us to think about how the othering of the past, so it can fully serve the needs of a present, potentially disfigures that alterity even as it renders it. Moreover, this blind spot can be intensified by the validating function of alterity. To what extent are our historicizing key terms post-modern versions of objectivity? Because historicist identifications can get deflected into language, examining when we turn to post-structuralist theories of language and when we are more willing to claim linguistic transparency may further help us to reexamine the work of alterity. I have, moreover, urged that we think more about how the choice of one's vantage point for alterity may have unintended consequences in the shaping of that alterity. In as much as Halperin wants to think outside of orientation, his use of orientation as his vantage point for alterity has perhaps had the unintended effect of reifying this ideological concept.

  48. Histories of sexuality will be further strengthened once we recognize that inevitable blindness does not excuse selective blindness. Although Halperin's insistence that historicism must be defended is helpful, a fully-defended historicism can never be accomplished. We are always selecting what we defend, and we can only defend what we can imagine skeptically. Finally, thinking about how alterity can facilitate the projection of current sexual attitudes onto the past without looking like it is doing so, may help us to distinguish between what we want alterity to do for us and what alterity meant then. If Halperin has successfully warned us of the dangers of "unproblematically" mapping the concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality onto Greek sex, I hope that this essay has shown the possible dangers of mapping the concept of alterity onto the past even when one is partly aware of the dangers.


Works Cited

Beck, Theodric Romeyn. Elements of Medical Jurisprudence. 2 vols. Albany: Websters and Skinners, 1823.

Bleys, Rudi C. The Geography of Perversion. London: Cassell, 1996.

Brown, Nathaniel. Sexuality and Feminism in Shelley. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979.

Calame, Claude. The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Cameron, Kenneth Neill. Shelley: The Golden Years. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974.

Clark, David, ed. Shelley's Prose. London: Fourth Estate, 1988.

Clark, Eric O. Virtuous Vice: Homoeroticism and the Public Sphere. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.

Crompton, Louis. Byron and Greek Love. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.

---. Homosexuality and Civilization. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.

Crozier, Ivan. "The Medical Construction of Homosexuality and its Relation to the Law in Nineteenth-Century England." Medical History 45 #1 (January 2001): 61-82.

Davidson, Arnold. The Emergence of Sexuality. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.

Davidson, James. "Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex." Past and Present 170 (February 2001): 3-51.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Sex, Literature and Censorship. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2001.

Dover, Kenneth James. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1978.

Forberg, Friedrich Karl. Manual of Classical Erotology. New York: Grove Press, 1969. Original English Translation, 1844.

Gilbert, Arthur. "Sexual Deviance and Disaster During the Napoleonic Wars." Albion 9 (1977): 98-113.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions. Oxford: OUP, 1991. Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.

Halperin, David. How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: U Chicago P, 2002.

---. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hamilton, Paul. Historicism. London: Routledge, 1996.

Hobson, Christopher. Blake and Homosexuality. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Jones, Frederick L., ed. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae. Volume 4. Parts One and Two. Zurich: Artemis Verlag, 1988.

Larrabee, Stephen. English Bards and Grecian Marbles. New York: Columbia U Press, 1943.

Liu, Alan. "Wordsworth and Subversion, 1793-1804: Trying Cultural Criticism." Yale Journal of Criticism 2 #2 (Spring 1989): 55-100.

Lucian. Lucian. Trans. M.D. Macleod. Vol. 7. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967.

Mailloux, Steven. Rhetorical Power. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Neitzsche, Friedrich. "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." Untimely Meditations. Ed. Daniel Breazeale. Trans. R. J. Holingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Notopoulous, James. The Platonism of Shelley. Durham: Duke UP, 1949.

Plato. The Symposium. Ed. Christopher Gill. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1999.

Reiman, Donald, ed. Shelley and His Circle. Vol. 6. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1973.

Robb, Graham. Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.

Sedgwick, Eve. The Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U CA P, 1990.

Sha, Richard C. "Romantic Science and Romantic Sexuality." Forthcoming in The New Oxford Handbook to Romantic Poetry. Ed. Marilyn Gaull.

---. "Romanticism and the Sciences of Perversion." Wordsworth Circle 36 #2 (Spring 2005): 43-48.

Shelley, Percy. "A Discourse on the Manners of the Antient [sic] Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love." Shelley's Prose. Ed. David Clark. London: Fourth Estate, 1988.

Stehle, Eva. Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece. Princeton: PUP, 1997.

Thomas, Brook. The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics. Princeton: PUP, 1991.

Thornton, Robert John. The Philosophy of Medicine: Being Medical Extracts on the Nature and Preservation of Health. 2 vols. Fifth Ed. London: Sherwood, Neely, & Jones, 1813.

Towsey, David. "Platonic Eros and Deconstructive Love." Studies in Romanticism 40 (Winter 2001): 511-530.

Trumbach, Randolph. Sex and the Gender Revolution: Homosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1998.

White, Newman Ivey. Shelley. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.


* For help with Ancient Greek, I thank especially Niki Papavramidou and Michael North at the National Library of Medicine, along with my colleague, Valerie French. Any errors, of course, are my own. Terrence Lockyer graciously answered a number of my queries concerning scholarship on Ancient Greek sex. While Jill Hollingsworth helped with the research, Jonathan Loesberg and Michael Manson offered insightful criticisms. In yet another act of generosity, Stuart Curran helped to sharpen my reading of Shelley and of Greek sex.

1 Important critiques of historicism include works by Liu, Mailloux, Thomas, and Hacking. Hacking asks why critics assume that words refer to static entities.

2 Andrew Elfenbein's Romantic Genius: Towards a History of a Homosexual Role is an important contribution to a genealogy of orientation. In "Romanticism and the Sciences of Perversion," I consider how the increasing importance of function in the biological sciences of the Romantic period makes it difficult to imagine a perverted identity.

3 In Volume 4 of the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, the standard reference for Classical iconography, the depictions of Ganymede range widely from those which show him as a boy (Ganymede entries 56, 79, 119, 122, and 125) to those which illustrate him as more manly (i.e., entries 28, 44, 250). I would point out that the more muscular ones are not at all interchangeable with women. No depictions of Ganymede show him with a beard, although in some of them he may have sideburns (see, for example, #44). A number of entries depict Ganymede with a rooster (see Ganymedes 12, 22, 28, 44, 48, 56 and 73). Might not the rooster be an unambiguous sign of Ganymede's maleness?

In Homosexuality and Civilization, Louis Crompton reads the Erotes as "more an assault on male love than a defense of heterosexuality" (125). Crompton's admirably comprehensive study would have been further strengthened had he addressed arguments like Halperin's that are wary of using the concepts of "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" to describe sex in Ancient Greece.

4 Paul Hamilton puts the problem this way: "historicism is the name given to this apparent relativing of the past by getting to know the different interpretations to which it is open and deciding between them on grounds expressing our own contemporary preoccupations. Fears then grow that this amounts to uncontrolled relativism on the part of the historian or critic" (19). He "mitigates" the problem by arguing, "the changeability in our view of the past is a condition of getting our present into proper perspective. A fixed view of one would entail a contradictory curtailing of our alertness to the formative historical process still at work in the other" (19).

5 Considering how fascinating Shelley's essay on the Ancient Greeks is, there has been little sustained commentary on it. Shelley wrote this essay as one of two prefaces to his translation of "The Banquet of Plato" (the other is "On Love"); this was the first translation in English to render the pronouns exactly. With the exception of Crompton's Byron (288-300), much of that commentary is misleading. Christopher Hobson's claim that Shelley "stress[es] the normality of male-male attraction in Greek society" only makes sense if he means "normal" as common. As I have argued here, Shelley insists that homoeroticism is unnatural and "illegitimate." Graham Robb distorts Shelley's essay by describing him as having "hinted that sodomy could be an expression of love and that it was hardly 'more horrible than the usual intercourse endured by almost every youth of England with a diseased and insensible prostitute'" (177). Eric Clarke largely passes over Shelley's essay; he notes that Shelley could not get over an incongruity between Greek paederasty and Greek philosophy as thus he "postulated wet daydreams as the true source" behind homoeroticism (127). The fullest study of Shelley's essay to date is Nathaniel Brown's. Brown argues that Wincklemann informs Shelley's understanding of Greek beauty (19-23), and he extolls Shelley's feminist principles. Brown also discusses the importance of Shelley's distancing of the Greeks from Roman "obscene" versions of the Greeks (120-22). See also Notopolous.

For a deconstructive approach to Shelley's translation of Plato, see David Towsey's essay. Towsey's valuable attention to synechdochal patterns within Plato that make it "difficult to distinguish the rational and good, the generality of the whole, from the carnal and base" (515) suggest clear dangers to any historian of sexuality who does not take into account how aesthetic features complicate the text's function as window to sexuality. Whereas Halperin insists upon clear divisions between eros and philia, Towsey argues that Plato conflates "love, sexual intercourse, procreation, artistic creation and divinity" (521). That Towsey does not mention homosexuality supports Sedgwick's view that "deconstruction...has both fetishized the idea of difference and so vaporized its possible embodiments that its practitioners are the last people to whom one would now look for help in thinking about particular differences" (23). On the one hand, if I have in this essay sacrificed historicist particularity for a metaphysics of alterity, I have done so to try to reinvigorate our uses of alterity. On the other hand, I want to emphasize what can be learned from thinking beyond or vaporizing embodiment.

For more on Shelley's taste in statuary, see Stephen Larrabee, English Bards and Grecian Marbles, 175-203.

6 The medical work on same-sex behavior that Crozier cites in the 1842 edition, T.R. and J. B. Beck's Elements of Medical Jurisprudence, has an earlier American 1823 edition, available at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

7 Forberg's Manual of Classical Erotology comes 24 years after Shelley's essay. Forberg's attention to Greek passages of depiliation, moreover, allows for the possibility of adult male homosexuality in Ancient Greece, so long as adult males plucked out their beards and other hairs to look younger (118-19).

8 Puberty and Romantic science is one of the foci of my forthcoming essay, "Romantic Science and Romantic Sexuality," and book project, Perverse Romanticism.

9 Louis Crompton in Homosexuality and Civilization notes that although Voltaire and Diderot did argue that sodomy was natural, this did not prevent them from using "anti-homosexual rhetoric" (see pages 518 and 521-22). Voltaire discusses sodomy in his Dictionnaire Philosophique. Jones lists Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique as among the books that Shelley read in 1811 (2:487); he does not specify which books were later confiscated. When Shelley refers to this work in his letters, however, he points to Eliza Westbrooke's reading of it, not his.

That natural sodomy could then be aligned with "anti-homosexual" rhetoric means that we also are in need of more nuanced histories of "heteronormativity."

About this Page

Published @ RC

January 2006