Historicizing Romantic Sexuality
The Uses and Abuses of Historicism: Halperin and Shelley on the Otherness of Ancient Greek Sexuality
Richard C. Sha, American
* 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.
Important critiques of historicism include works by Liu,
Mailloux, Thomas, and Hacking. Hacking asks why critics
assume that words refer to static entities.
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.
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.
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
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).
Puberty and Romantic science is one of the foci of my
forthcoming essay, "Romantic Science and Romantic
Sexuality," and book project, Perverse
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."