BMCR 1994.05.15

1994.05.15, Konstan, Sexual Symmetry

, Sexual symmetry : love in the ancient novel and related genres. Princeton legacy library. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. xiii, 270 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9780691033419. $35.00.

Modern readers of the ancient novels, be they men or women, students or professors, can consider themselves fortunate, for the pleasure they take in those novels will be doubled by David Konstan’s Sexual Symmetry, which shows that the love relationship at their centers consists of a pairing of equal partners utterly unique in ancient literary constructions of eros and foreign to most modern ones as well. It is a gloriously humane and healthy version of love K. describes: “Here, the body is not a threat or the source of sin. Rather, it is the natural locus of desire, in men and women alike. Fidelity is not won at the expense of passion, but is its complement, whenever the attraction is mutual, between equals, and uncoerced.” The phrase “between equals” here sounds the keynote of Sexual Symmetry, which begins by showing that in the five extant Greek novels the heterosexual passion of the protagonists holds to an equilibrium in which male and female lovers experience matching emotions and neither attains power over the other. Homosexual liaisons, by contrast, are marginalized in the novels when they involve an eromenos and an erastes, i.e., a power-imbalanced love-pair; and the predations of lustful tyrants and bandit chiefs serve likewise as negative models, showing how eros grows cold when it is predicated on domination. The analysis of the literary construction of love, based in part (as K. asserts) on Michel Foucault’s more socially-oriented analysis in the History of Sexuality, will be welcome to fans of Foucault and of the increasingly prevalent use of power paradigms in analyzing human relationships; those for whom the aforementioned are anathema had best forego this book.

My own biggest problem with Sexual Symmetry stems from what happens (or fails to happen) after K. introduces his main thesis in chapters one and two. Rather than pressing the many possible implications of the mutuality of eros in the novels—the psychological, culture-historical, or reader-response questions plumbed, for example, by Arthur Heiserman in The Novel Before the Novel (whose second chapter partly anticipates K.’s first)—the author turns in chapters three through five to a corollary thesis, that only the Greek novel, among all ancient and most modern literature, constructed eros in this balanced way. Here the book becomes more constrained: a critic can only prove a literary construction unique by eliminating all possible parallels, one by one; and this is what K. does, surveying first the Roman novel, then Greek literature in general, then post-classical romances and prose fictions. Not only are a vast number of plot summaries and background sketches required, but the analytic technique also becomes grimly formulaic: pair by pair the lovers are marched up to the balance-of-power scales, and set on separate pans; the blocks are pulled away; and inevitably, one partner rises while the other descends. Moreover, by focusing only on negative comparisons, those which show the Greek novel to be completely without peer, K. may have missed a good opportunity to illustrate his point by way of parallels: the love-pairs drawn by Shakespeare in his comedies, though barely mentioned in this book, would have gone a long way toward exemplifying the type of relationship it defines (and Shakespeare was, as we know, an ardent admirer of the Greek novel).

K. concludes by suggesting the socio-historical implications that might be drawn from the unique character of erotic love in the Greek novel; here he presents a modified version of an analysis first put forward by Ben Perry in The Ancient Romances. One intriguing possibility K. raises in this concluding chapter, though without elaboration, is that the Greek novel was directed not at an audience of women (as has sometimes been supposed) but at children, whose sentimental and idealized experience of eros is reflected in its heroes and heroines. If this be accepted, one might further suggest that the novels shared with Plutarch’s Precepts on Marriage a certain propaideutic function, providing models of equitable and mature love to young people who were now, in the absence of polis-based social networks, largely responsible for their own marital selections. And if this is so, would it be rash to suggest that the novels can serve a similar function today? K.’s analysis has at least put that possibility into my head, and thus I plan to include the first chapters of Sexual Symmetry, along with several of the extant novels, on the reading list of future Greek literature surveys. Many others who teach the Greek novels will no doubt want to do the same; and those (not a few) who read them for pleasure will also take pleasure in K.’s book.