Greece and homosexual identity in Edmund White's 'An Oracle.'(Queer Utilities: Textual Studies, Theory, Pedagogy, Praxis)
I don't know how not to gush about it. I realize I'm hardly the first to feel it, any more than Byron was, but the moment we set foot in Greece I was home free. Impossible to measure the symbolic weight of the place for a gay man. We grew up with glints and evasions in school about the homoerotic side, but if you're alone and think you're the only one in the world, the merest glimpse is enough. The ancient soil becomes peopled with warrior brothers equal to fate, arm in arm defending the marble-crowned hill of democracy from savage hordes. The source of such heroics is buried very deep - for me it lies in History I at Andover, the stone swell of the athletes' muscles and marathon battle statistics, war after war till it all disappeared.
But you find that your first bewildered erotic connection at fourteen stays with you, since most of the rest of gay history lies in shallow bachelors' graves. I admit the baggage I took to Greece was cumbrous, that I swept across the Aegean at a fever pitch. But I can't begin to say what brought us through the fire without telling this part at a hundred and three degrees. It was the last full blast of sunlight in our life. There is no medium cool for the final pang of joy, no more than there is for the horrors that wait like the Sphinx at the bend in the road. (Monette 20-21)
I cite this passage because it seems a locus classicus of gay neoclassicism. It illustrates an attitude toward ancient Hellenic civilization that is by now an embarrassment to hold, as Monette's self-deprecating reference to "cumbrous baggage" confesses. In the orthodox view, the idea of gay history is by nature problematic, since homosexual identity is a modern invention. Jeffrey Weeks and Michel Foucault laid the groundwork for this consensus, arguing that before the mid to later nineteenth century there was no category "homosexual person," only homosexual acts conceptually undifferentiated from other forbidden sexual acts (Weeks 25; Foucault 43). Subsequent studies (Bray, Cady) have cited evidence for moving the date back into the eighteenth century, and recently Joseph Cady (9-40)(1) has presented some rather good reasons to perceive a sense of homosexual identity in the writings of Francis Bacon and Thomas Heywood. I suspect that as long as homosexuality is defined on the basis of identity, the discovery of evidence for an even earlier date of "invention" is almost inevitable, since identity is as much a matter of dissociation as of association, and the clear stigmatization of homosexual acts in medieval European literatures creates a sexual Other that demands only consciousness of persistent desire to constitute a sense of identity.
Yet even moving the date of the invention of homosexuality back to the early seventeenth century or before in Northern Europe will not bring the ancients into the fold. Many of those who follow Weeks and Foucault's cue postulate a prevailing undifferentiated sexuality, undivided by particularized desires, before the invention of homosexuality. Regardless of the doubt that evidence like Cady's throws on this view for post-classical European cultures, David Halperin has made a convincing case for its being true in regard to Greece. While the modern West attaches primary significance to the role of biological sex in determining the appropriateness of sexual desire, in Athens the primary determinant was social status. Simply put, sexual relations between social peers were an abomination. Boys, women, and slaves were equally appropriate objects of desire for a citizen - that is, a free adult male - while a fellow citizen was not. Women's sexuality is an unknown factor in this equation.(2) Moreover, a citizen must always take the active role of pederast, never the passive one of catamite. This is not to say that there was no such thing as sexual preference: it is clear that some citizens did prefer boys or women. Rather, the point is that such a preference bore no more cultural significance than, to use Halperin's crude analogy, a preference for the white or the dark meat of a chicken. A citizen who preferred boys had no reason to construct a sexual identity that marked him as other, and in fact until modern times sexual preferences had no more to do with the construction of the self than other matters of "taste." Though the stigmatization of homosexual acts may raise doubts about the idea of an undifferentiated sexuality in later times, the absence of such stigmatization is itself strong evidence for Halperin's account of Athenian sexuality.
The conclusion that homosexuality is a modern construct has dire consequences for any attempt to write homosexual history, since homosexuality itself as a concept applied historically closes off the possibility of understanding other cultures to which it is irrelevant, imposing an ethnocentric modern view on all of history. David Bergman puts the case succinctly when he says,
Because homosexuality in Euro-American culture is so tied to the dominant culture from which it emerges, and because its terms and values are generated out of the "violent dialectic" with that discourse, it is mistaken to connect the structure of current, western homosexuality with the male-male sexual activity of other times and cultures. The modern Euro-American homosexual views him- or herself in vastly different ways than the Greek pederast or the Melanesian pubescent. Though both progay and antigay forces have linked Euro-American homosexuality to institutional male sex in other cultures - especially the Greeks - such linkage only further distorts and obscures the nature of homosexuality in Europe and North America. (27)
This is undoubtedly correct. Yet if the truth be told, the same sorts of irrationality that plague the idea of gay history attend historiography in all its forms. Moreover, the concept of identity, on which the edifice of our one-century-old acquaintance with sexual orientations is built, is a boggy foundation. Consequently, as applied to individual cases this isolative view of homosexuality seems to me continually to prove inadequate as a way of confronting the historical and cultural Other.
One such individual case, illustrating why it is so hard to maintain a rigid distinction between our sexuality and others, is represented by Edmund White's much-reprinted story "An Oracle" (Mars-Jones and White 168-209).(3) In a narrative that, like Monette's, juxtaposes Greek and gay love, but with none of Monette's breathless enthusiasm, White deals with historical identity in such a way as to put Halperin's analysis into a different light. Greece here is not so much an antecedent as an analogue, a device for probing the nature of gayness and for explaining why we cannot resist the impulse to historicize homosexuality. White places a small cast of oddly self-centered players on a cosmic stage strewn with concepts relevant to gay identity and antecedents. Though the action all takes place in Crete, the preliminary exposition, analyzing the protagonist Ray's life in New York, is extraordinarily full, and positions him to dramatize matters of gay history and identity. Ray's lover George, who has recently died of AIDS, dominated Ray's life in nearly every imaginable way. A brash and competitive image-maker for corporations, he carried his assertiveness over into his personal relations, and he remolded Ray's character to his own liking in much the way he transformed corporate images, imposing on him choices ranging from his job in public relations for an outrageously bloodthirsty chemical firm to his selection of underwear. In turn, Ray is all too willing to put himself at George's disposal. "After George died, Ray went through a long period of uncertainty," we are told in the opening sentence, and it soon becomes apparent that the nature of this uncertainty is over just what he ought to be, now that there is no one to provide an identity for him. The wide range of jobs he held before taking his position with Amalgamated Anodynes is just one indication of his lifelong directionlessness. But this omnium-gatherum of insubstantial employment (ghost writer, bartender, stockboy, waiter, and so forth) also serves to represent him as a kind of Everygay, an impression reinforced by his physical appearance, which characterizes him as a 1970s clone. Ray's immaturity thus bears an element of social critique, and his relationship with George grows ripe for allegorical exploitation.
Pointed attention to George and Ray's sexual mores is of a piece with this implied appraisal of gay life before AIDS, but it serves another purpose as well. Though George was the more adventurous, Ray, too, is not above turning a trick, even within two weeks of George's death. This is not simply callousness. Even while George was alive Ray had an "ideological horror of marriage as a model" (178), a view that of course held wider political sway in the 1970s than it does now. His grief is genuine, and he fills out the symbolic period of a year of mourning before he travels to Crete as a sign of his rightful reentry into the world of the living. Rather, the point of all this promiscuity seems to be to underscore the extent to which love and desire are indifferent to each other's fate in Ray's New York life, and thus to draw a distinction fundamental to the way gay identity is defined.
Accordingly, on Crete, Ray's infatuation with a local boy by the name of Marco begins as mere sexual curiosity, and seems to involve no real emotion: their arrangement is simply that Ray will service Marco, nightly and furtively, for a fee. Marco is hardly different from the other young men of the town, who are described collectively as the possessors of "wonderful black hair, muscular bodies, red cheeks under deep tans, flamboyant mustaches, big noses, transparent arrogance, equally transparent self-doubt, black eyebrows yearning to meet above the nose and often succeeding" (188). Most important, he is apparently straight, a quality that White portrays in some of his other works as the sine qua non of sexual attraction.(4) Real emotional involvement seems out of the question as long as Marco is straight, since then his only motive for tolerating Ray's attentions is financial. Ray is not unaware of the ways in which Marco is the fulfillment of a fantasy, and in wry self-deprecation he compares his infatuation to a variety of prepubescent daydreams involving a Mexican worker, an "Indian brave," and a camel boy. At this point the connection could hardly be clearer between Ray's perpetual immaturity and the sexual issues already raised. The sharp separation of sexual and emotional matters that has characterized Ray's Ire with George, and now pervades his adventures in Crete, seems nothing more than the fulfillment of preadolescent fantasies.
Yet Ray quickly develops an emotional attachment to Marco that comes more and more to resemble an obsession. He daydreams about the boy; he buys a Greek phrasebook; he punishes Marco for his callousness by canceling one night's rendezvous, and then regrets it all day because he misses him; he fantasizes how he must appear to the boy; he begins to write a story about Marco; he lays plans to buy a house on the island and invite Marco to live with him, managing the place as a guesthouse; and finally he writes a letter to the boy, professing his love and explaining his plans for the guesthouse, and he has the letter translated into Greek by a sympathetic visitor. The progress of this attachment is continually paralleled by a concomitant insistence that he has no illusions. He is no Gustave Aschenbach. His feelings, he says, lack an objective correlative, since his encounters with the boy are "strictly sexual" (200); he is convinced Marco is straight; his speculations about what the boy thinks are "sentimental rubbish" (203); and he laughs at himself when he catches himself thinking that the boy is anything but a "hooker" (205). These disclaimers do little to allay the impression that Ray really has gone off the deep end - an impression confirmed when he develops the plan for the guesthouse and writes the letter. The tension is thus enormous as Marco reads the letter, since Ray does not after all seem to have any real conception what a fool he is making of himself.
The letter itself plays upon the theme of opposition between love and desire. Ray tells the boy that what he feels is more than simply sexual, and that their relations have been limited to this only because of the language barrier. He also offers a "gift," an object that actually seems like one more payment for favors - a gold necklace, "the sort of sleazy bauble all the kids here were wearing" (208). In this context of both narrative and thematic climax, any reaction other than contempt on the part of the boy would seem miraculous, and so it is not especially disturbing - it in fact heightens the marvel - that Marco seems suddenly to know more English than he has let on. "I know you love me and I love you," he says. "But Xania is no good for you. Too small. Do not rest here. You must go" (209). And then in case there is any doubt about his understanding of the situation, or about his real intentions, he returns the gift unopened before he leaves. The boy's cutting off all further contact and at the same time professing genuine love more than adequately justify the conflicting emotions of grief and elation that overpower Ray when he is alone. But the opposing feelings are given a different explanation in the final sentence: "He was blown back onto the bed and he smiled and cried as he'd never yet allowed himself to cry over George, who'd just spoken to him once again through the least likely oracle" (209).
In what sense is the boy's response to Ray's letter oracular? In the most immediate sense it addresses Ray's central problem with George. Ray went to Crete for the purpose of exorcising the spirit of George's domination of his life; and in fact when Ray had his first encounter with Marco, his most immediate thought was, "George I've escaped you, I've gotten away from you" (196). "One thing certain," we are told, "was that whatever was going on in Crete came before or after George and precluded George" (197). George has in fact seemed to be a spirit present throughout Ray's vacation on Crete. Early in his stay Ray remarks that he "believed George still loved him, or would if God would let him speak" (184); and George haunts Ray's dreams in the form of a spirit. Significantly, then, Marco's final words to Ray are "I won't see you again. You must look out for yourself" (209). The last sentence in fact replicates George's precise words, a favorite piece of advice to Ray (172, 206), and so in a very concrete sense Marco is a point of contact with the Otherworld. But in a larger sense, too, Marco's response is oracular because it speaks the truth about the conflict of love and desire that recurs in the narrative. We have already seen how the two were kept separate in George's and Ray's relationship, and how Ray continually tries to bring himself back to earth in his feelings about Marco, only half wishing to convince himself that any attachment he feels is romantic rubbish, and is unreciprocated. The contrast is in fact implicit in the first words the two speak to each other. When Marco asks "What you want?" it seems to Ray that "his faint smile suggested he already knew and that Ray's desire was disgusting and entirely practicable." And when Ray responds "You," Marco fails to understand, obliging Ray to change this to "Sex" (195). Thus, half the miracle of Marco's function as oracle at the end of the tale is the unexpected conversion of mere sex, the "disgusting and practicable," to love. Although Ray in his relationship with George has treated the two as separate entities, Marco's response rather suggests that in some sense love and desire are inextricably intertwined. There is in fact a whole literature of AIDS devoted to lamenting the loss of sexual liberty as a loss of love.(5)
But Marco's response is more directly relevant to the recurring historical theme of homosexual identity and antecedents. One of the effects of Ray's inability to communicate in Greek is to lend life on Crete a certain timeless quality by cutting it off from distinctly contemporary concerns. The inhabitants of the island seem to be engaged in age-old occupations, and the farmers and shepherds Ray encounters away from town he refers to, without any apparent self-consciousness, as "peasants." Continual comparisons are in fact drawn between Ray's life, or what he sees and experiences on the island, and the ancient history of Greece. Ray twice compares Marco to the naked youths who vault over bulls in wall-paintings at Knossos (194, 208). Reading the Odyssey on the beach, Ray begins to cry when the shade of Achilles tells Odysseus in the Underworld that he would rather live a slave than rule the strengthless dead. One of Ray's American companions is a professor of classical studies by the name of Homer, who carefully records the scene, paying the local boys to pose nude for his camera. Thinking about whether he might be buried next to George, Ray remembers having seen the skeletons of a prehistoric man and woman buried together, she lying on her side, with her hand on his chest. Ray has a book, The Death Rituals of Rural Greece, from which he continually culls passages dealing with the behavior of widows. In the ageless context of rural life, Ray in particular, and all those left to mourn by the ravages of AIDS, are implicitly compared to Hecuba and the Trojan women when the topless towers of Ilium were burned. And as he regains his composure after his association of Achilles' words with George, when Ray himself is starkly contrasted with an Arcadian image on the beach, the opposition is quickly deconstructed in much the way the opposition of love and desire is at the end of the story:
He stood and waded and waved, smiling, at the old shepherd in black pants and a carved stick in his hand, which itself looked carved; Ray, expensively muscular in his Valentino swim trunks, thought he was probably not much younger than this ancient peasant and suddenly his grief struck him as a costly gewgaw, beyond the means of the grievously hungry and hardworking world. Or maybe it was precisely his grief that joined him to this peasant. (p.186)
This collapsing of past and present serves primarily to highlight the similarities rather than the differences between gayness and Greek love. Though Ray's preoccupation with maintaining his physical condition is portrayed as an expensive artificiality, obsession with the perfection of the male body is one of the habits of thought that most closely link Greek and gay attitudes. Viewed in a Greek context, George and Ray's relationship looks oddly Athenian, subsisting as it does between an older and a younger man, the latter in fact quite immature. As with Greek love, the basis of the relationship is not simply the satisfaction of sexual needs, but it is also for the purpose of instruction, and the formation of a citizen: George clearly molds Ray's character and career to his own liking. And as with Greek love, their sexual roles are strictly regulated: George dominates in the bedroom as elsewhere. It is said that George puts on drag on occasion, adopting the persona of Darleen, a "horny" and "intimidating" "slut" (171); but this serves only to reinforce the immutability of their everyday sexual roles: "Darleen had introduced a certain variety into Ray's and George's sex life, for she liked to be passive in bed, whereas George was tirelessly active. No one would have believed it, not even their closest friends, but Ray had fucked Darleen whereas he could never have fucked George" (171). Here one of the four features that Bergman identifies as a characteristic essential to the distinction between homosexuality and other intramale sexualities - that is, variability of sexual roles - is reduced to a mere matter of role-playing (31). I should say that regarding the lack of fixed sexual roles as a distinguishing feature of gayness is at any rate problematic. This view implies that gay love is somehow real, while Greek love was a mere social convention, as if modern forms of sexual expression were in some manner direct manifestations of the "real self," and were not molded and channeled by the forces of culture, the way Greek sexuality was. In actuality, the roles of modern sexual partners are as constrained as those of Athenians, since just as the Greeks abhorred sexual relations between social peers, we abhor sexual relations between non-peers, with varying degrees of disapprobation according to the participants' age, social rank, and financial independence, among other things. In some ways our insistence on the maintenance of sexual roles is in fact more rigid than the Athenians', since, for example, Aeschylus apparently was not bothered by the implications of his assumption that Achilles and Patroclus were pederast and catamite, respectively, though Patroclus was the older and wiser of the two (Halperin 86).(6) In any case, as in other respects, the form of George and Ray's relationship in regard to the relative immutability of their sexual roles seems designed above all to minimize the significance of the features that might otherwise distinguish modern from ancient homosexual acts.
The analogue to the age difference required by Hellenic homosexual practice has particularly interesting implications. We have seen that Ray's central problem, his difficulty establishing an identity for himself, is in large part a matter of immaturity. Like so many of the Gay-Lib-era men he stands for, he clings to the last vestiges of youth in a gay world in which age brings no rewards and endless disappointments. In Greek terms, Ray's identity problem is managing the transition between two discrete sexual roles, the youth and the elder, the student and the teacher. (Significantly, Ray feels some uneasiness about accepting a "passive" sexual role until Homer explains, "They're the men, we're the girls. . . . Give it a try. After all, it's your only option," 190.) Though we may define the limits of youth and age differently, the transition is no less important for gay relations than for Greek homosexual ones.(7) This search for a new identity and a mature sexual role seems to be what Marco is referring to in his final words to Ray, "You must look out for yourself." Like most oracles, this one is ambiguous. When George spoke the same words the meaning seemed fairly transparent, given George's competitiveness and will to succeed. On Marco's tongue the words do not make such good sense as an expression of a need for self-interest. Rather, here they seem to refer to the need to move beyond Crete, beyond the search for Hellenic roots, to establish one's own identity - to look for oneself.(8)
If Ray and George challenge the distinction between gay and Greek sexuality from one side, so does Marco from the other.(9) Another of Bergman's four distinguishing features of gayness, the "genuineness" of gays' sexual preference (opposed, for example, to the behavior of prisoners), seems especially elusive as a means of distinguishing what Marco feels from what Ray feels. In fact, in this story genuineness seems to belong to the Greeks. Though undoubtedly it is partly a result of the allegorization of George and Ray, that they did really love each other is not very obvious. Their relationship is portrayed with some consistency as a kind of manipulation, more or less explicitly compared to George's business dealings with large corporations. By contrast, Marco's feelings seem surprisingly genuine for a prostitute. When he pouts over his obligation to meet Ray the last night before a comrade is to leave town to begin military service, the affection seems more genuine than anything described as passing between George and Ray. We assume Marco's impulses to be homosocial rather than homosexual, but then it is essential to White's aim that Marco's sexuality remain ambiguous - not just to maintain the sexual appeal of straightness on which White lays so much emphasis, but to mask Marco's real feelings about Ray until the climactic final moment. Even at the end we are left wondering whether he means to say that he is gay, or whether the love he professes to feel for Ray is something else altogether. The ambiguity is of course deliberate, since Marco represents something outside our experience, and what he means by love is presumably unknowable to a largely middle-class Anglo-American reading audience. His sexuality seems ambiguous only to an audience that is historically constrained to view it in the binaristic terms of homo- and heterosexuality.
This ambiguity I think raises a particular difficulty in regard to our ability to apply the Foucauldian view of homosexual history. If Ray were able to communicate effectively with Marco he would be able to discover whether he preferred sex with men or with women, and no doubt neither he nor we would hesitate to say then that Marco was gay, or that he was straight. The very fact that we regard his sexuality as ambiguous implies this binarism. Yet we have every reason to suspect that Marco himself would not think in these terms.(10) Foucault's view thus forbids our calling him one or the other, and yet this conclusion runs counter to what seems to be virtually everyone's experience of the story. Why should there be any hesitation about conceding, on the basis of Halperin's argument, that Marco has no sexual identity?
I think it is because of the tacit recognition that identity is a problematic basis on which to define homosexuality. Halperin's view requires that we reject not only behavior but also desire (or "orientation" or "taste") as bases for definition, leaving only identity. Identity of course is notoriously difficult to define. It involves both association of the self with others and dissociation of the self from others. It may be self-imposed or it may be imposed externally. It is largely political in nature, and may be influenced by such irrational factors as faith and denial. To take the example of another narrative peripherally concerned with AIDS, Christopher Bram's In Memory of Angel Clare contains four characters with widely different views on homosexual relations, implying four widely different views on sexual identity: Ben Slover thinks of the "new sobriety" in the wake of the AIDS pandemic as a "failure of nerve" (57); Jack Arcalli thinks that "sex should be connected with love, or the chance of love" (204); about Clarence Laird it is said, "It continued to amaze him that gay men no longer had to have sex with each other in order to be gay" (271); and, most tellingly, Michael Sousza, who thinks that sex is "utterly unimportant" (56), cannot identify himself as gay, despite his unambiguous sexual orientation: "Gay suggested an identity as solid and apart from him as black, an identity now shored up by rumors of a disease that struck only gays. Michael never worried about the disease because he wasn't gay" (78). The point is that indeterminacies as potent as the one Halperin points out for Athenian sexuality apply within our own culture. In other words, we have difficulty not assigning a sexual identity to Marco not just because we can't help thinking in these binaristic terms, but also because the obstacle he presents to assigning such an identity is perhaps no greater than the obstacles we regularly ignore when we assign such an identity to someone set squarely within our culture. Indeterminacy in the definition of identity, and genuine variation in practice in our own culture when it comes to assigning identities, call into question the conclusion that homosexual history begins with the modern world, because if what we mean by homosexual or heterosexual is flexible enough to include Marco, or for that matter Michael Sousza, how are others to be excluded?
Such arbitrariness of course is not peculiar to the definition of only sexual identity. For example, there is no reason besides a biased cultural convention to regard the offspring of a black parent and a white one as black, and yet in the USA such a person would more than likely identify him- or herself, and be identified by others, as black. If blackness is thus a matter of identity, can black history be faulted for including people who, like most precolonial Central Africans, never had any awareness of black identity, having had no contact with non-blacks? Similarly, should European history exclude everyone who has had no concept "Europe," a category that would comprise the majority of Europeans before the Renaissance? Even now, isn't the identification of the boundaries of Europe artificially definite? The subject of European history is defined by our own cultural assumptions about what constitutes European identity, since for our own purposes we regard a variety of diverse cultures as forming some kind of coherent European cultural whole. It is not possible to write a history of Europe without defining the subject on the basis of our own relatively recent cultural assumptions. And yet, although we regularly apply historical identities of our own devising in order to define the subject of study, we are also regularly required to jettison conceptions of identity other than our own merely in order to maintain a coherent historical subject, and prevent it from mutating endlessly out of control.
The point is not that the differences between Greek love and modern homosexuality are insignificant, or even that they have been exaggerated. I do not think they have. Nor is it that the practice of classifying people as "homosexual" or "heterosexual" is not as problematic as it seems. I think it is. The point instead is that the difficulties that attend the idea of homosexual history are built into the idea of historiography itself. It is not possible to write a history from a culturally neutral standpoint - though as Foucault points out, that is what most historians pretend to do. And if it were possible, what use would such a history be to anyone? To demand congruence of identity as a prerequisite to historiography is to restrict homosexual history in ways that other histories are not restricted, though they too define the subject from a culturally biased standpoint. Nor do I think that sexual identity is so very different from racial or ethnic identity as to justify such a prejudicial practice. Halperin makes the point that focusing on the differences between Greek and modern gay love reveals "the uniqueness of modern European and middle-class American attitudes: we are the ones, it seems, whose sexual norms and institutions require historical explanation" (54). This is true enough, but it is necessary to add that it is not just our sexuality that is unique. Our sexuality is just one aspect of the historical uniqueness of our culture as a whole. Sexuality is a particularly useful medium for illustrating how our cultural biases warp our understanding of history; but singling out sexuality in this manner prohibits one type of comparison while leaving other types intact. When gays are thus singled out we are deprived of intellectual property that is allowed others, often on no firmer grounds. Our motives are always suspect when we write history, and our cultural limitations are always meddlesome; but our motives are no more suspect and our cultural limitations no more meddlesome in regard to the history of sexuality than in regard to other types of history. If we scrutinized our motives and our limitations as carefully in all instances, historiography would falter altogether.
This is not a plea for different or unusual standards of historiography for gays. What we need instead is a recognition that to cut ourselves off from the past because of the uniqueness of our sexual or cultural identity is to make ourselves permanent prisoners to that identity. We cannot stop writing history, and therefore we cannot help beginning with the political categories we've constructed for ourselves. But we can and must at least look outside the prison. Just as skin color tends to take over the role of racial identity in a black history that includes precolonial Africa, or as geography and religion take over in the case of European history, we have to consider more seriously the possibility of constituting homosexual history not exclusively on the basis of identity, but also of desire.
Monette's view of Greece looks more reasonable in this light. It is unabashedly sentimental, but I am not sure that it engages in the particular historical fallacy that Bergman and others have illuminated in other gay writings about the Hellenic past. Monette does not portray Greece as a place where homosexual identity was tolerated. He does not even derive from Greece the idea of a time when homosexual acts of all sorts were not stigmatized, since he portrays Greek male love as not between men, but between men and boys.(11) Yet even disencumbered of such illusions, Monette continues to find worth in the connection. As for White, his use of Greece is more abstract and circumspect: while Monette forthrightly looks to Greece for his forebears, in White's story Greece is not our genetic ancestor but our analogue. In this respect his treatment is in better accord with the Foucauldian project of history, as summarized by Halperin:
Written from the perspective of particular modern interests - rather than from a "neutral" or "objective" position which, by situating itself "outside" of those interests (supposedly), conceals the extent of its own complicity in them - Foucault's genealogical explorations are undertaken with the avowed purpose of making a difference in the here-and-now. . . .
The Greeks are hardly alien or lost to us. They are, on the contrary, all about us - not because we are (allegedly) their inheritors. . . .Rather, the Greeks are all about us insofar as they represent one of the codes in which we transact our own cultural business: we use our "truths" about the Greeks to explain ourselves to ourselves and to construct our own experiences. Far from being a repressed presence inside us, or a utopian alternative to us, the Greeks occupy an unexplicit margin framing our own self-understanding; as such, they are closely bound up with our self-definitions, with our senses of ourselves as situated in history and culture, as "descended from Greek civilization" (70).
As a cultural analogue rather than an antecedent, in White's hands Greece also serves the purpose of "making a difference in the here and now." But while Foucault uses history "to explain ourselves to ourselves," picking apart our illusions, White offers Greece as a metaphor for us, with all the irrationality and insight that metaphors entail. As with most metaphors, the analogy is only approximate; yet he steadfastly aims to reduce the differences, highlighting the Hellenic aspects of George and Ray's relationship, against all historical reason. Irrational as it may be in instances like this, as Halperin concedes, Greece remains for many a powerful cultural symbol. Thus, when Ray's grief, and the grief of all AIDS mourners, is tacitly compared to the grief of the Trojan women, the metaphor transforms AIDS before our eyes. The disease is no longer an impersonal virus acting in concert with a pervasive set of social prejudices, but a tragedy on a Homeric scale. This is a far more powerful symbol than the competing metaphor of the homophobic right that it seeks to supplant, of AIDS as God's vengeance. By treating Greece as metaphor rather than as metonym, White aims to alter our conception of the historical present. In doing so he hardly does more than the historian, at least in Foucault and Halperin's pragmatized view of the contingency of all historiography. Neither literature nor history is capable of objectivity; but that is precisely why gay historiography is not automatically invalidated by the metaphor on which it is constructed.
I wish to thank Jim Adams, David Aveline, Joseph Cady, Linda David, Tom Dukes, Joan Pong Linton, Brian Powell, M. Rick Smith, Sheryl Stevenson, and the Bloomington Queer Theory Group, and especially Elena Glasberg, for help and advice in the preparation of this essay.
1 Published simultaneously as a special double issue of Journal of Homosexuality 23.1/2.
2 Our knowledge of homosexual practices in classical Greece is limited almost exclusively to Athens, and our knowledge of lesbianism in Athens is virtually nil. See Greenberg 116-17 and 118 n. 154. The whole construct of homosexual history is a solidly masculine discourse, in part because males controlling the ethnographic record in both ancient and modern times clearly have had no interest in female sexuality.
3 The story first appeared in Christopher Street 32-49; then in Stamboulian 331-69; and then in an earlier, shorter edition of The Darker Proof 205-50. Now it has been reprinted again in White's latest collection, Skinned Alive.
4 For example, in The Beautiful Room is Empty he more than once remarks that queerness queers desire: "Whoever succumbed to homosexual desire became immediately undesirable" (41; cf. 88); and "At this time I read James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, in which Giovanni stops being attractive the moment he abandons heterosexuality. Against this absolutism of heterosexuality, few merits held up. A large penis or a muscular body or lots of money had some appeal, but they were fraudulent when they belonged to another queer" (193-94).
5 The most conspicuous example is Fierstein's Safe Sex; another is Rudnick's Jeffrey.
6 On 225 he also expresses some further reservations about his already qualified views on the immutability of sex roles for citizens. This is in reference to evidence on Attic pottery presented in a study by Keith DeVries, Homosexuality and the Athenian Democracy, parts of which he saw in manuscript, and which seems not to have appeared in print yet.
7 Bergman quotes Strato and Alkaios to the effect that the suitability of a boy as a catamite does not outlast adolescence (42-43).
8 This is also the interpretation that Richard Dellamora places on the expression: see 98-116, at 112.
9 Richard Dellamora (see the preceding note) has also noticed the comparisons between Greek and gay love implicit in Ray's relationships with George and Marco. But he sees the point of this as an affirmation of Foucault's arguments, in that Marco's association with ancient Greek culture serves more to accentuate the difference than to minimize it: the analogy, rather, is simply a romantic notion of Ray's, and one not untypical of gay attitudes toward Greece.
10 This is implicit in his representation of Greek sexuality within the historical scheme of the story; but also the attitude toward homosexual acts expressed by the boys of the island suggests a sexual self-conception different from the dichotomizing one on which Foucault says that the concept of homosexuality is based. Halperin in fact remarks, "Contemporary Mediterranean sexual practices continue to afford us a promising avenue of inquiry into the conventions of classical Athenian paederasty" (61).
11 See 23, describing Thera: "They had an oracle there too, and a gymnasium with an outdoor court at the tip of the bluff where the boys danced naked to Apollo. There are inscriptions along the walls, erotic poems to the boys, though the guidebook wouldn't recite a single line. This was not even the same galaxy as History I. We were the only tourists there at that hour in the dancing court, and we couldn't decide which was our truer ancestry, the boys or the dirty old men."
Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Representation in American Literature. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991.
Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men's, 1982.
Cady, Joseph. "'Masculine Love', Renaissance Writing, and the 'New Invention' of Homosexuality." Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. Ed. Claude J. Summers. London: Haworth, 1992.
Dellamora, Richard. "Apocalyptic Utterance in Edmund White's 'An Oracle.'" Writing AIDS: Gay Literature, Language, and Analysis. Ed. Timothy F. Murphy and Suzanne Poirier. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.
Fierstein, Harvey. Safe Sex. New York: Atheneum, 1987.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
Greenberg, David F. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
Halperin, David. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Mars-Jones, Adam and Edmund White. The Darker Proof. New York: Plume, 1988.
Monette, Paul. Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. New York: Avon, 1988. Rudnick, Paul. Jeffrey. New York: Plume, 1994.
Stamboulian, George, ed. Men on Men: Best New Gay Fiction. New York: New American Library, 1986.
White, Edmund. "An Oracle." Christopher Street 98 (March, 1985): 32-49.
-----. The Beautiful Room is Empty. New York: Knopf, 1988.
-----. Skinned Alive. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Weeks, Jeffrey. Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London: Quartet, 1977.
Fulk is professor of English at Indiana University. His latest book is A History of Old English Meter (U of Pennsylvania P, 1992).
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|Author:||Fulk, Robert D.|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1997|
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