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Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities.

Contemporary cutting-edge commentary about the history of sexuality contends that homosexuality is a new historical "invention." This often undefined argument seems at a minimum to say that earlier periods like the Renaissance had no awareness of nor language for same-sex eroticism as a distinct, categorical sexual orientation and ultimately to hold that even a de facto homosexual orientation did not exist in the age. Jonathan Goldberg's beautifully-produced Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities, one of several books on Renaissance homosexuality to appear in the past two years, further promotes this view and further demonstrates its problems.

Consciously echoing Foucault, and freely acknowledging his debt to Alan Bray and Eve K. Sedgwick as well, Goldberg declares that sodomy was an "utterly confused category" in the Renaissance and that, correspondingly, "homosexuality ... had no place" in the age (70) and "there were no homosexuals in Renaissance England" (69). Relatedly, though less prominently, Goldberg holds that sexual orientation itself, either in concept or in fact, did not exist in the Renaissance ("homo- and heterosexuality ... are undifferentiated in the period," (110), a view linked to his deconstructionist belief in the essential "indeterminacy" of all sexuality (61), in itself "an empty concept - without content" (12). "Sodometrie" was an occasional synonym for "sodomy" from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries in England, and Goldberg adapts the term here to denote what he sees as Renaissance sodomy's inherent "slippages" and "instabilities" (xv-xvi).

Goldberg's main innovation is to draw these points from texts not examined by the first "new-inventionists" - George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie, Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar, Familiar Letters, and Astrophel, the Countess of Pembroke's "Lay of Clorinda," Marlowe's Edward II and Dido Queen of Carthage, I & II Henry IV, several Spanish colonial accounts of New World conquest, and William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. In these discussions Goldberg persistently conveys the impression of a formidable, sophisticated mind at work, and Sodometries may strengthen the hold new-inventionism already has on literary academics and some historians in gay studies.

These features do not diminish the problems of Goldberg's approach, however. His sources seem few, narrow, and sometimes off-center for the breadth and confidence of his claims, and he assumes an audience already committed to the postulates, methods, and language of poststructuralism. The focus of his discussion also seems unbalanced, with almost as much time spent interrogating other critics as addressing primary sources. Most problematic is Goldberg's omitting or overlooking of key information and insights. For instance, Sodometries makes no mention of the well-known censorings of male-male romantic writing in the period. If the Renaissance was oblivious to or indifferent about homosexuality, why did Michelangelo the Younger heterosexualize or eliminate entirely his granduncle's poems to other men in his first collected edition of the Rime in 1623 and why did John Benson do the same to Shakespeare's Sonnets in his 1640 edition of the collected poems? Additionally, Goldberg does not inquire into the Renaissance's language for homosexuality but simply takes it as given, and as a linchpin of his entire book, that "sodomy" was the only available terminology in the age for same-sex sexuality. Yet research would have shown that the period had other, salient terms for the subject, like "masculine love" for a male homosexual orientation - e.g., Theodore Zwinger's Theatrum Vitae Humanae (1604 edition) has no entry for "Sodomy" at all, but rather includes it with several other manifestations under the extensive category of "Libido Mascula."

Sodometries also devotes no discussion to the long-standing cultural claim that same-sex sexuality was "unspeakable" (first officially voiced, as far as we know now, in the twelfth century, in Peter Cantor's De Vitio Sodomitico), a vital piece of data from gay history that, if mentioned, might make Goldberg's overall argument look like a self-fulfilling prophecy. For, even if Renaissance culture had officially talked only of an indeterminate "sodomy," would that not have been predicted by the entrenched stigma of homosexuality's "unspeakableness," which demands silence or vagueness about the subject? More broadly, Goldberg's postmodernist, "no content" view of sexuality excludes concrete experience as a basis for erotic awareness, assuming instead that knowledge of categorical differences between homosexuality and heterosexuality only comes "from above," particularly from a culture's official language about them and especially the language of its law. But would not the different physical textures and possible consequences of homosexuality and heterosexuality alone mark them as different phenomena - one a "same-bodies" sexuality that could never be biologically procreative, the other a "different-bodies" sexuality that always had the potential to produce children and that, in an age before reliable birth-control, most often did when it was penis-vagina intercourse?

There seems to be a notable myopia to Sodometries' politics as well. Goldberg is insistently antihomophobic, yet his discussion is overwhelmingly devoted to the "deconstruction" of homosexuality in the age, an enterprise that amounts to a selective erasure of homosexuality from earlier history. But Goldberg seems unaware of this eradicating aspect of his work and of the homophobic uses. to which his chief argument could be put (e. g., by readers who would be quite happy to have homosexuality "not exist," in the present or the past). Would it not have been more consistent with the declared antihomophobia of Sodometries to have brought the topic of heterosexuality more to the fore and to have devoted at least equal time, if not the entire book, to the "deconstruction" of Renaissance heterosexuality instead? These several problems, which Goldberg's work shares with the work of his models Foucault, Bray, and Sedgwick, seriously flaw his argument and seem in some instances to vitiate it.
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Author:Cady, Joseph
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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