BMCR 1991.01.07

One Hundred Years of Homosexuality

, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: and Other Essays on Greek Love. New Ancient World Series. London: Routledge, 1990. x, 230 pages. ISBN 9780415900966.

In this volume David Halperin gathers six of his essays, all but one previously published, on the topic of the erotics of male culture in ancient Greece. To these he adds an introduction situating his own work in its scholarly tradition, including the informal ban that until quite recently silenced most study of Greek homosexuality; he pays special tribute to the work of Dover and Foucault as his intellectual predecessors.

In Part I, the theoretical section of the book, Halperin applies a Foucaultian analysis to Greek homosexuality and so treats sexual identity not as a given of nature but as a cultural construct. He argues that homosexuality (which he seems to define quite narrowly as love for a same-sex object free from the implication of gender inversion) is a modern invention of the last century or two, the necessary concomitant to compulsory heterosexuality. Therefore, while we may from our modern perspective speak of a given individual in the ancient world as a homosexual, the term is nevertheless a hindrance to understanding the system of erotic desire that prevailed in antiquity. Halperin’s analysis illustrates the scholarly results that can be derived from recognizing that our own experience of sexuality is not synonymous with that of other cultures. To this end he proposes a new intellectual discipline devoted to “the cultural poetics of desire,” defined as “the processes whereby sexual desires are constructed, mass-produced, and distributed among the various members of human living-groups” (p. 40).

Halperin’s book constitutes a major advance in the process by which classical scholars are coming to recognize the cultural assumptions and political biases that so often underlie their supposedly objective search for the truth. Acknowledging that his own study is written from the perspective of contemporary gay interests, Halperin is able to discuss candidly not only the secret attraction that “Greek love” has held for many classical scholars but also the political agenda behind currently popular views of Greek homosexuality. His criticism of Harald Patzer’s theory of ritual paederasty (chapter 3) is the most apt example of the latter. With a view to releasing himself from the constraints of the traditional “objectivity” of the scholar, Halperin experiments with different approaches to the scholarly essay. While Chapter 1 (“One Hundred Years of Homosexuality”) assumes the standard form of argument against an intellectual opponent (namely, John Boswell), Chapter 2 (“‘Homosexuality’: A Cultural Construct”) consists of an interview with the sociologist Richard Schneider, in which Halperin attempts to clarify the positions he took in the first chapter and even to explore the limitations of his own approach. Chapter 3 sets out the critical tradition in which Halperin situates himself through a comparison of the work of Patzer and Foucault.

The persuasiveness of the arguments advanced in Part 1 suffers however, from the essay form in which they are couched. Although the two “non-traditional” essays (2 and 3) are the most successful, I believe that, ironically, the first half of the book would have been more persuasive if it had been written in a more straightforward fashion. The interview with Schneider (in which Halperin spells out his allegiance to the “constructionists” against the “essentialists”) is made necessary (according to Halperin’s own admission) by the sometimes confusing discussion in the title essay. The reader of that introductory piece must try to make sense of such statements as “It is not exactly my intention to argue that homosexuality … didn’t exist before 1892” (p. 17) and “Although there have been, in many different times and places …, persons who sought sexual contact with other persons of the same sex as themselves, it is only within the last hundred years or so that such persons … have been homosexuals” (p. 29). Many will not be comfortable with his rigid separation of bisexuals from homosexuals or his claim that sexual identity is completely decoupled from gender identity in the modern understanding of sexuality. It would also have been helpful if his fullest discussion of Foucault, in the third chapter, had appeared earlier as a guide to his theoretical assumptions.

Part II consists of three essays on more specific literary and historical topics. Chapter 4 (“Heroes and their Pals”), an attempt to understand the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus through comparison with two similar pairs, Gilgamesh and Enkidu and David and Jonathan, is the weakest of the three. His conclusion that these friendships reflect a common desire in the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean about the beginning of the first millennium “to claim … a larger share of public discourse … for the play of male subjectivity” (p. 85) is poorly supported. Despite Halperin’s proper insistence that male cultural identities can only be understood in terms of the treatment of women within the same culture, his observation that these friendships tended to replace conjugal relationships leads to no conclusions about how the repression of women may have been related to the formation of male subjectivity. Chapter 5 (“The Democratic Body: Prostitution and Citizenship in Classical Athens”) rehearses some fairly well-known material about male prostitution and the position of women to come to provocative conclusions about the political implications of sexual categories in democratic Athens.

The prize of honor goes to the last chapter, “Why is Diotima a Woman?”. Halperin’s complex and sophisticated answer to the title question goes beyond exegesis of the Symposium itself to show how men routinely appropriate the voices and procreative capacity of women to make up for their own lack and so to reproduce themselves as a new generation of males in control of society. By displaying a sensitive understanding of feminist principles, Halperin reaches conclusions that hold important implications not only for future studies on the formation of male cultural identities but also for the current debate about what and how we can know of ancient women. His argument that when men speak about women, they are actually speaking for them (and so really about men themselves) is an important insight, affecting our understanding of all Greek literature at least through the classical period. It makes clear that the central fact we know about the realities of women’s lives in ancient Greece, and so the starting point for any analysis, is suppression.

In the nature of works that try to lead our thinking in new directions, Halperin’s book has its imperfections. The argument in the first part could have been more tightly integrated, and the level of scholarship in the second part is uneven, varying from the full discussion of opinion about the reason Diotima is a woman to a rather superficial, almost popular treatment of male and female prostitution. But Halperin himself distinguishes between the traditional scholarly approach that disavows the bias of our own engagement with our subjects and less precise readings that nevertheless allow us to see how our “truths” about other cultures are ways of understanding ourselves. He is to be commended for attempting to bridge the gap between the two.